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Photonic crystal nanolaser biosensor simplifies DNA detection

15 Jan 2015

Could ease detection of biomarker proteins from cancer or diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

A simple method to sense DNA, as well as potential biomarker proteins of cancer or other diseases such as Alzheimer’s, may soon be within reach – following the work of researchers at Yokohama National University, Japan.

As the team reports in Applied Physics Letters they have created a photonic crystal nanolaser biosensor, which can detect the adsorption of biomolecules based on the laser’s wavelength shift.

The nanolaser biosensor enables detection of the surface charge from its laser emission intensity, which can also be used to sense the adsorption of biomolecules. Using laser intensity to detect biomolecules is potentially less expensive than the conventional fluorescent tagging or spectroscopy techniques.

“In the beginning we focused on wavelength behavior, but quickly noticed that [the laser emission] intensity is influenced by both pH and polymers,” noted Toshihiko Baba, a professor in Yokohama National University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Our results were very reproducible and, interestingly, we found that the behaviors of the wavelength and intensity are independent.”

The team was surprised by these results, which they discovered when they deposited a protective film of thin zirconium dioxide (ZrO2) over the device using atomic layer deposition, and then tried sensing in liquids of high or low pH and liquids containing charged polymers. The coating was necessary to protect the nanolaser from damage and unwanted wavelength drift.

The nanolaser device can sense surface charge because the surface charge changes the occupancy rate of electrons at the surface states in the semiconductor of the nanolaser, Baba explained. “This modifies the semiconductor’s emission efficiency.”

So far, the team’s work is the first report of the detection of surface charges using such photonic sensors. “It enables detection of the adsorption of biomolecules from the nanolaser biosensor both in terms of wavelength and intensity,” Baba said. Since it involves different physical parameters, the researchers can examine the details of the biomolecules.

No labels, no spectrometer

The conventional functionalization process of the fluorescent labels is expensive. For this reason, many research groups have developed label-free methods such as those using resonance in optical cavities and plasmonic states.

However, these require spectral analyses using spectroscopy of wavelength or resonance optical angle – also expensive. By contrast, the team’s nanolaser biosensor needs neither labels nor spectrometers if they use the intensity change. This greatly simplifies detection, which they’ve already demonstrated in the case of DNA.

Among the many potential applications for the nanolaser biosensor, the team hopes “to apply it to sensing DNA, biomarker proteins of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease,for example, from human bodily fluids such as blood – as a simpler procedure than any others before now,” noted Baba.”

“Our research project, which runs from 2012 to 2016, ultimately targets the development of a photonic crystal nanolaser sensor for biomarker detection,” said Baba. “We’re working to further simplify and improve the sensor so that it will be ready for practical use within a few years.”

In the Applied Physics Letters paper, the Yokohama authors state, "Label-free detection of surface charges is possible without any spectral analyses simply by measuring the sample's emission intensity. In this study, we first demonstrate that emission intensity is greatly affected by the pH of the solution, in which the nanolaser is immersed, suggesting that the dependency on the surface electronic potential and surface charges. Thereafter, we demonstrate the simultaneous sensing on the basis of the alternate adsorption of charged polyelectrolytes and the hybridization of deoxyribonucleic acids."

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

Universe Kogaku America Inc.Mad City Labs, Inc.Berkeley Nucleonics CorporationABTechSPECTROGON ABAlluxaCeNing Optics Co Ltd
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