G protein coupled receptors are responsible for a wide variety of signaling responses in diverse cell types. Despite major advances in the determination of structures of this class of receptors, the underlying mechanisms by which binding of different types of ligands specifically elicits particular signaling responses remain unclear. The use of fluorescence spectroscopy can provide important information about the process of ligand binding and ligand dependent conformational changes in receptors, especially kinetic aspects of these processes that can be difficult to extract from X-ray structures. We present an overview of the extensive array of fluorescent ligands that have been used in studies of G protein coupled receptors and describe spectroscopic approaches for assaying binding and probing the environment of receptor-bound ligands with particular attention to examples involving yeast pheromone receptors. In addition, we discuss the use of fluorescence spectroscopy for detecting and characterizing conformational changes in receptors induced by the binding of ligands. Such studies have provided strong evidence for diversity of receptor conformations elicited by different ligands, consistent with the idea that GPCRs are not simple on and off switches. This diversity of states constitutes an underlying mechanistic basis for biased agonism, the observation that different stimuli can produce different responses from a single receptor. It is likely that continued technical advances will allow fluorescence spectroscopy to play an important role in continued probing of structural transitions in G protein coupled receptors. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Structural and biophysical characterisation of membrane protein-ligand binding.
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