Near-infrared (NIR) dye-peptide conjugates are widely used for tissue-targeted molecular fluorescence imaging of pathophysiologic conditions. However, the significant contribution of both dye and peptide to the net mass of these bioconjugates implies that small changes in either component could alter their photophysical and biological properties. Here, we synthesized and conjugated a type I collagen targeted peptide, RRANAALKAGELYKCILY, to either a hydrophobic (LS1000) or hydrophilic (LS1006) NIR fluorescent dye. Spectroscopic analysis revealed rapid self-assembly of both LS1000 and LS1006 in aqueous media to form stable dimeric/H aggregates, regardless of the free dye's solubility in water. We discovered that replacing the cysteine residue in LS1000 and LS1006 with acetamidomethyl cysteine to afford LS1001 and LS1107, respectively, disrupted the peptide's self-assembly and activated the previously quenched dye's fluorescence in aqueous conditions. These results highlight the dominant role of the octadecapeptide, but not the dye molecules, in controlling the photophysical properties of these conjugates by likely sequestering or extruding the hydrophobic or hydrophilic dyes, respectively. Application of the compounds for imaging collagen-rich tissue in an animal model of inflammatory arthritis showed enhanced uptake of all four conjugates, which retained high collagen-binding affinity, in inflamed joints. Moreover, LS1001 and LS1107 improved the arthritic joint-to-background contrast, suggesting that reduced aggregation enhanced the clearance of these compounds from non-target tissues. Our results highlight a peptide-driven strategy to alter the aggregation states of molecular probes in aqueous solutions, irrespective of the water-solubilizing properties of the dye molecules. The interplay between the monomeric and aggregated forms of the conjugates using simple thiol-modifiers lends this peptide-driven approach to diverse applications, including the effective imaging of inflammatory arthritis joints.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113624
JournalJournal of Photochemistry and Photobiology A: Chemistry
StatePublished - Feb 1 2022


  • Fluorescence imaging
  • Fluorescent probe
  • Inflammatory arthritis
  • Peptide-fluorophore conjugate


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