Spying on the inner life of a cell - new nanosensors a body can live with

For two decades, chemists have been making great strides in analyzing the biological functions that drive living cells. But many biological substances still remain undetectable.

That will soon change, thanks to a biological sensor being developed by University of Arizona chemists. Their new sensor platform has many capabilities that current ones lack.

Most intracellular sensors are made from hard plastics (polymers). The plastic is formed into solid, nanometer-sized, BB-like beads, which are doped with chemicals. These chemicals make them sensitive to a variety of ions and molecules. But scientists can only detect intracellular compounds that react optically with these chemicals.

Current biological sensors have several other drawbacks. Imaging dyes and proteins, fiber optics sensors, and coated nano-sized beads can disrupt cellular processes. In addition, they sometimes break down chemically or can be toxic. They also can't reveal the kinds of chemical processes occurring or their rates of reaction in real time. And they can't detect large molecules, such as proteins.

"Our new technology takes advantage of some very specific and useful biology," said UA chemist Craig Aspinwall. "It's the ability of ions, molecules or groups of molecules to interact with certain proteins. We can use those proteins to report the presence of specific ions and molecules."

Aspinwall takes an unconventional approach to constructing tiny devices that safely transport and hold these proteins within a cell.

He starts by making nanometer-sized hollow shells of phospholipids that self-assemble. The self-assembled phospholipids are then "polymerized," or chemically linked, to form the sensors. Since phospholipids are the major component of cell membranes, they are biocompatible. A hundred can be released inside a cell without affecting cellular functions. The shells' hollow shape allows them to safely hold water-soluble -- or even toxic -- indicat

Contact: Craig A. Aspinwall
University of Arizona

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