The monitoring of intracellular pH is of great importance for understanding intracellular trafficking and functions. It has various limitations for biosensing based on the fluorescence intensity or spectra study. In this research, pH-sensitive carbon dots (CDs) were employed for intracellular pH sensing with fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) for the first time. FLIM is a highly sensitive method that is used to detect a microenvironment and it can overcome the limitations of biosensing methods based on fluorescence intensity. The different groups on the CDs surfaces changing with pH environments led to different fluorescence lifetime values. The CDs aqueous solution had a gradual change from 1.6 ns to 3.7 ns in the fluorescence lifetime with a pH range of 2.6–8.6. Similar fluorescence lifetime changes were found in pH buffer-treated living cells. The detection of lysosomes, cytoplasm, and nuclei in living cells was achieved by measuring the fluorescence lifetime of CDs. In particular, a phasor FLIM analysis was used to improve the pH imaging. Moreover, the effects of the coenzymes, amino acids, and proteins on the fluorescence lifetime of CDs were examined in order to mimic the complex microenvironment inside the cells.
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