Because the degree of labeling (DOL) of cell-bound antibodies, often required in quantitative fluorescence measurements, is largely unknown, we investigated the effect of labeling with two different fluorophores (AlexaFluor546, AlexaFluor647) in a systematic way using antibody stock solutions with different DOLs. Here, we show that the mean DOL of the cell-bound antibody fraction is lower than that of the stock using single molecule fluorescence measurements. The effect is so pronounced that the mean DOL levels off at approximately two fluorophores/IgG for some antibodies. We developed a method for comparing the average DOL of antibody stocks to that of the isolated, cell-bound fraction based on fluorescence anisotropy measurements confirming the aforementioned conclusions. We created a model in which individual antibody species with different DOLs, present in an antibody stock solution, were assumed to have distinct affinities and quantum yields. The model calculations confirmed that a calibration curve constructed from the anisotropy of antibody stocks can be used for determining the DOL of the bound fraction. The fluorescence intensity of the cell-bound antibody fractions and of the antibody stocks exhibited distinctly different dependence on the DOL. The behavior of the two dyes was systematically different in this respect. Fitting of the model to these data revealed that labeling with each dye affects quantum yield and antibody affinity differentially. These measurements also implied that fluorophores in multiply labeled antibodies exhibit self-quenching and lead to decreased antibody affinity, conclusions directly confirmed by steady-state intensity measurements and competitive binding assays. Although the fluorescence lifetime of antibodies labeled with multiple fluorophores decreased, the magnitude of this change was not sufficient to account for self-quenching indicating that both dynamic and static quenching processes occur involving H-aggregate formation. Our results reveal multiple effects of fluorophore conjugation, which must not be overlooked in quantitative cell biological measurements.
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