The presence of lipid domains in cellular membranes and their characteristic features are still an issue of dividing discussion. Several recent studies implicate lipid domains in plasma membranes of mammalian cells as short lived and in the submicron range. Measuring the fluorescence lifetime of appropriate lipid analogues is a proper approach to detect domains with such properties. Here, the sensitivity of the fluorescence lifetime of1-palmitoyl-2-[6-[(7-nitro-2-1,3-benzoxadiazol-4-yl)amino]-hexanoyl]-sn-glycero-3-phospholipid (C6-NBD-phospholipid) analogues has been employed to characterize lipid domains in giant unilamellar vesicles (GUVs) and the plasma membrane of mammalian cells by fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM). Fluorescence decay of C6-NBD-phosphatidylcholine is characterized by a short and long lifetime. For GUVs forming microscopically visible lipid domains the longer lifetime in the liquid disordered (ld) and the liquid ordered (lo) phase was clearly distinct, being ∼7 ns and 11 ns, respectively. Lifetimes were not sensitive to variation of cholesterol concentration of domain-forming GUVs indicating that the lipid composition and physical properties of those lipid domains are well defined entities. Even the existence of submicroscopic domains can be detected by FLIM as demonstrated for GUVs of palmitoyloleoyl phosphatidylcholine/N-palmitoyl-d-sphingomyelin/cholesterol mixtures. A broad distribution of the long lifetime was found for C6-NBD-phosphatidylcholine inserted in the plasma membrane of HepG2 and HeLa cells centered around 11 ns. FLIM studies on lipid domains forming giant vesicles derived from the plasma membrane of HeLa cells may suggest that a variety of submicroscopic lipid domains exists in the plasma membrane of intact cells
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