While synthesizing fluorescent dyes like these, Jon Grimm of Janelia Research Campus often has to mask or “protect” parts of his molecules with functional groups that are less reactive. This step allows him to modify one part of the dye molecule without undoing the work he did on another. The protected versions of the molecules are colorless. But when Grimm adds sodium hydroxide or tetra-n-butylammonium fluoride (TBAF) to the protected molecules, they lose their protecting groups, revealing their colors and fluorescing under ultraviolet light. Grimm works with Janelia’s chief toolmaker Luke Lavis and shares the dyes they make with the biochemists on campus and around the world for use in high-resolution biological imaging.
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