Single-molecule Förster resonance energy transfer (smFRET) has become a widely used biophysical technique to study the dynamics of biomolecules. For many molecular machines in a cell proteins have to act together with interaction partners in a functional cycle to fulfill their task. The extension of two-color to multi-color smFRET makes it possible to simultaneously probe more than one interaction or conformational change. This not only adds a new dimension to smFRET experiments but it also offers the unique possibility to directly study the sequence of events and to detect correlated interactions when using an immobilized sample and a total internal reflection fluorescence microscope (TIRFM). Therefore, multi-color smFRET is a versatile tool for studying biomolecular complexes in a quantitative manner and in a previously unachievable detail.
Here, we demonstrate how to overcome the special challenges of multi-color smFRET experiments on proteins. We present detailed protocols for obtaining the data and for extracting kinetic information. This includes trace selection criteria, state separation, and the recovery of state trajectories from the noisy data using a 3D ensemble Hidden Markov Model (HMM). Compared to other methods, the kinetic information is not recovered from dwell time histograms but directly from the HMM. The maximum likelihood framework allows us to critically evaluate the kinetic model and to provide meaningful uncertainties for the rates.
By applying our method to the heat shock protein 90 (Hsp90), we are able to disentangle the nucleotide binding and the global conformational changes of the protein. This allows us to directly observe the cooperativity between the two nucleotide binding pockets of the Hsp90 dimer.