Cholesterol is a major constituent of the membranes in most eukaryotic cells where it fulfills multiple functions. Cholesterol regulates the physical state of the phospholipid bilayer, affects the activity of several membrane proteins, and is the precursor for steroid hormones and bile acids. Cholesterol plays a crucial role in the formation of membrane microdomains such as “lipid rafts” and caveolae. However, our current understanding on the membrane organization, intracellular distribution and trafficking of cholesterol is rather poor. This is mainly due to inherent difficulties to label and track this small lipid. In this review, we describe different approaches to detect cholesterol in vitro and in vivo. Cholesterol reporter molecules can be classified in two groups: cholesterol binding molecules and cholesterol analogues. The enzyme cholesterol oxidase is used for the determination of cholesterol in serum and food. Susceptibility to cholesterol oxidase can provide information about localization, transfer kinetics, or transbilayer distribution of cholesterol in membranes and cells. The polyene filipin forms a fluorescent complex with cholesterol and is commonly used to visualize the cellular distribution of free cholesterol. Perfringolysin O, a cholesterol binding cytolysin, selectively recognizes cholesterol-rich structures. Photoreactive cholesterol probes are appropriate tools to analyze or to identify cholesterol binding proteins. Among the fluorescent cholesterol analogues one can distinguish probes with intrinsic fluorescence (e.g., dehydroergosterol) from those possessing an attached fluorophore group. We summarize and critically discuss the features of the different cholesterol reporter molecules with a special focus on recent imaging approaches.

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