In this report, we wish to present the rational design, synthesis, and study of optical characteristics of near-infrared (NIR) molecular probes emitting over 800 nm. The title pH sensing platforms consist of a piperazine moiety serving as a hydronium ion receptor, coupled with a rigidified symmetric heptamethine backbone. The spectrally fine-tuned response of the fluorophores was studied in both organic solvents and aqueous buffer solutions, employing combined UV–Vis and steady state fluorimetric techniques. In parallel, computational approach and optical spectroscopy were employed aiming to ascribe the origin of spectral behavior of the amino-substituted heptamethines. Herein, we also investigated the halochromic effect of the differently substituted piperazines on the spectral properties of the NIR cyanine dyes. Under acidic conditions, the protonation of the piperazine moiety promoted a gradual bathochromic shift in the absorption spectra. The Δλ between the neutral and the protonated forms are indirectly related to the modifications applied to the proton acceptor. The calculated pKa values (5.13–7.06) were found to be dependent on the dye chemical structure. A good linear correlation was established between the pKa of the newly synthesized dyes and that of the reported piperazine moieties. This aspect allows the future expansion of the current facile strategy since sensing chromophores with predicted pH response could readily be designed based on pKa databases for substituted piperazine derivatives. A detailed literature study along with NMR and computational methods were found to be in agreement with our assumption, that both nitrogen atoms of the 1,4-disubstituted amine are involved in the sensing process. The covered pKa range allows us to recommend the title fluorophores as promising potential candidates for qualitative analysis of biological samples. A cytotoxicity study by the MTT assay showed that the NIR dyes are safe and applicable for bioanalytical purposes at dye concentrations up to 10 μM. Fluorescence imaging and cellular applications, including staining and visualization of HeLa cervical cancer cells was successfully demonstrated.
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