A Fluorogenic Probe for Ultrafast and Reversible Detection of Formaldehyde in Neurovascular Tissues

PFM (Fig. 1) is a fluorogenic probe suitable for the detection of formaldehyde in living cells with excellent temporal and spatial resolution. 

Fluorescent probes based on regular fluorophores usually suffer from a low cell permeability and an unspecific background signal.

CFormaldehyde (FA) has traditionally been viewed as a notorious environmental toxin for its carcinogenic effects in mammals.

In fact, a healthy human brain would produce 0.2-0.4 mM of endogenous FA. Moderate amounts of FA have an important role in spatial memory formation in the human brain. However, excessive FA can damage the central nervous system, weaken people’s memory and cognitive abilities, and cause neuronal degeneration, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Although several fluorogenic probes can be used to detect FA in vivo or in cells, most are limited by the slow detection kinetics and irreversible reactions that may disrupt endogenous FA homeostasis. Therefore, it is particularly important to find a reliable detection method.

Dr. Xin Li designed a novel FA fluorescent probe (PFM), which reversibly reacts with FA and result in enhanced fluorescence response.

Fig. 1 Reaction principle of PFM (λex 451 nm, λem 500 nm) and FA



  • Ultrafast Kinetics: response can be observed within 1 minute PFM (10 μM) towards FA (200 μM).
  • Reversibility: the product can be quenched by NaHSO3 in vitro or in cells, but the fluorescent intensity can be regenerated after re-addition of FA. This cycle can be repeated for at least twice.
  • High Sensitivity: the detection limit is as low as 0.4 μM.
  • High Specificity: it can specifically detect FA in complicated biological contexts.
  • Potential to Quantify Endogenous FA: the fluorescence response reaches a maximum value (Fmax) when the FA concentration is higher than 500 μM. The natural logarithm of Fmax minus fluorescence intensity (F) correlates linearly with FA concentration ranging from 0 to 200 μM.
    Moreover, Dr. Li successfully used PFM to detect FA in pathological specimens of APP/PS1 transgenic mice, indicating the potential of PFM as a diagnostic tool. PFM is expected to be used to study the molecular mechanism between FA and neurodegenerative diseases.



  1. X. G. Liang, B. Chen, L. X. Shao, J. Cheng, M. Z. Huang, Y. Chen, Y. Z. Hu, Y. F. Han, F. Han, and X. Li. A Fluorogenic Probe for Ultrafast and Reversible Detection of Formaldehyde in Neurovascular Tissues. Theranostics, 2017, 7(8), 2305-2313.

PFM-1, 90%, Fluorescent probe, for formaldehyde detection

Dr. Li’s Profile

Dr. Li worked with Prof. E.J. Corey at Harvard University during 2011-2013. She is currently engaged in pharmaceutical chemistry research at Zhejiang University. Tackling the challenge in in-situ detection of biomolecules, her group designs fluorescent probes and develop techniques for in-depth study of molecular mechanisms in pathological processes. So far, this work has been granted 3 invention patents.

By shuhan yang


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