Self-association of cholesterol into aggregates and crystals is a hallmark of developing atherosclerosis. Intrinsically fluorescent sterols, such as dehydroergosterol (DHE), can be used to study sterol aggregation by fluorescence spectroscopy and microscopy, but a thorough understanding of DHE's photophysical and structural properties in the aggregated state is missing. Here, we show that DHE forms submicron fluorescent aggregates when evaporated from an ethanol solution. Using atomic force microscopy, we find that DHE, like cholesterol, forms compact oblate-shape aggregates of <100 nm in diameter. DHE's fluorescence is lowered in the aggregate compared to the monomeric form, and characteristic spectral changes accompany the aggregation process. Electronic structure calculations of DHE dimers in water indicate that Frenkel-type exciton coupling contributes to the lowered DHE fluorescence in the aggregates. Using molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, we show that DHE forms compact aggregates on the nanosecond scale and with strong intermolecular attraction, in which a broad range of orientations, and therefore electronic couplings, will take place. Tight packing of DHE in aggregates also lowers the apparent absorption cross section, further reducing the molecular brightness of the aggregates. Our results pave the way for systematic solubility studies of intrinsically fluorescent analogues of biologically relevant sterols.
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