Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Feng Gai


Proteins possess unique physical and chemical properties that allow them to carry out a wide variety of biological activities and functions. While it is generally understood that a protein’s function is dictated by its structure and dynamics, arriving at a molecule-level understanding of the underlying structure-dynamics-function relationship still poses a challenging task in many cases. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that we lack the ability to take snapshots along the reaction coordinate of proteins with sufficient temporal and structural resolution. Therefore, to improve one’s ability to acquire site-specific structural and/or environmental information of proteins via either infrared (IR) or fluorescence spectroscopy, the main focus of this thesis is to develop and characterize amino acid-based spectroscopic probes as well as to use such probes to study important biological questions. Specifically, we show that (1) p-cyanophenylalanine and selenomethionine constitute an efficient fluorophore-quencher pair, useful for characterizing protein conformational changes that occur on a short distance; (2) 4-cyanotryptophan is a novel blue fluorescent amino acid, applicable for biological imaging due to its unique photophysical properties; (3) the dielectric constant inside the hydrophobic interior of staphylococcal nuclease is about 10-15, significantly larger than previously assumed; and (4) a single mutation in a short segment of the protein transthyretin (i.e., 110-115) induces formation of amyloid fibrils consisting of both β- and α-sheets, where the latter is a proposed structure in proteins, but has never been observed previously.