Super-resolution method could bring nanoscale microscopy to every lab

Friday 16 August:

CNBP researchers have unlocked the potential to transform microscopy at the nanoscale from a costly, complex option to an everyday laboratory tool, available in every lab.

The technique, described in a paper by lead authors Dr Denitza Denkova and Dr Martin Ploschner, which has been dubbed upconversion super-linear excitation-emission – or uSEE – microscopy, can be used not only for observation but also for the activation of biological structures with super-resolution.

This opens new avenues in optogenetics for precise activation of neurons in the brain or for targeted delivery of drugs with increased sub-cellular precision.

Standard optical microscopes can image cells and bacteria but not their nanoscale features which are blurred by a physical effect called diffraction.

Optical microscopes have evolved over the last two decades in order to bypass this diffraction limit; however, these so-called super-resolution techniques typically require expensive and elaborated instrumentation or imaging procedures.

“We have identified a particular type of fluorescent markers, upconversion nanoparticles, which can enter into a regime where light emitted from the particles grows abruptly – in a super-linear fashion – when increasing the excitation light intensity,” Martin says. “Our key discovery is that if this effect is exploited under the right imaging conditions, any standard scanning optical microscope can spontaneously image with super-resolution.”

The discovery addresses a key challenge for microscopy – the so-called diffraction limit. This prevents optical microscopes from seeing very small features clearly as, when the size and distance between the features start reaching the nanoscale range, they begin to blur together and appear as one.

And that is a problem for biologists to observe nanoscale samples – which is what researchers tackling some of our toughest health challenges need to do all the time.
Little wonder then that accessing the world that lies beyond this diffraction limit has become a holy grail for optical microscopy researchers over the past two decades.

In 2014, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists, who developed three different techniques, capable of tricking physics to overcome the diffraction limit.
This landmark work set the scene for an explosion of so-called super-resolution techniques, which have led to revolutionary discoveries.

So far, however, all of these methods have had significant drawbacks. They are far from user-friendly and require either complicated and costly equipment or elaborated image processing, which often leads to imaging artefacts.

When it comes to 3D imaging, there are even more complications.

All the methods until now also require increasing the illumination power to increase the resolution – but that presents particular problems in the world of biology, where excessive light can harm a fragile specimen.

Denitza’s and Martin’s team took a novel approach to the problem. They wanted to make super-resolution possible on a confocal microscope, without set-up modifications or image processing, so that it would be available for use in any lab at practically no extra cost.

Their key discovery was that they could use a standard scanning optical microscope as a 3D super-resolution machine by imaging “upconversion” nanoparticles, potentially bound to the biological structure being studied. Unlike other super-resolution methods, uSEE microscopy offers better resolution at lower powers, and so minimises the damage to biological samples.

But it is not just the amount of light. Its colour also influences the photo-damage and the resolution. For example, UV- light is more harmful, but since it yields a better resolution, most of the super-resolution methods work in the UV and visible wavelengths.

However, in recent years biologists have become increasingly interested in using near-infrared light. It is less harmful and also allows imaging deeper in the tissue. But it does require a sacrifice in resolution, and the field of super-resolution has a very limited pool of fluorophores and techniques which work in the near-infrared regime.

Conveniently, the upconversion nanoparticles, on which the fluorescent markers employed in uSEE microscopy are based, are excited in the desired near-infrared colour spectrum. They are becoming increasingly popular as biological markers as they offer numerous other advantages for biology, including stable optical performance and possibility for multi-colour imaging.

Numerous papers have been published in the recent years about imaging of such particles for bio-applications. However, the effect of spontaneous super-resolution remains overlooked, mainly because the composition of the particles has not been fine-tuned for this application or the particles were not imaged under suitable conditions.

The CNBP team identified a particular nanoparticle composition which provides a strong improvement of the resolution. To make it easier for the end-user, the researchers developed a theoretical framework to optimise the particles and the imaging parameters for their own laboratory setting.

The concept of this method has been around for decades, and several groups have tried to put it into practice, but they either couldn’t identify fluorescent labels with adequate photo-physics, or the imaging conditions were not suitable to achieve bio-imaging in a convenient laboratory setting.

The CNBP team has shown for the first time that the technique can be used in a 3D biological environment, with biologically convenient particles which are both easy to work with and do not harm the samples.

This new methodological toolbox has the potential to go beyond the applications for which it has so far been used. It can be extended to a much broader imaging context, opening new avenues in the research of super-linear emitters and combining them with other imaging modalities to improve their performance.

Journal: Nature Communications

Publication Title: 3D sub-diffraction imaging in a conventional confocal configuration by exploiting super-linear emitters

Authors: Denitza Denkova, Martin Ploschner, Minakshi Das, Lindsay M. Parker, Xianlin Zheng, Yiqing Lu, Antony Orth, Nicolle H. Packer & James A. Piper

Abstract: Sub-diffraction microscopy enables bio-imaging with unprecedented clarity. However, most super-resolution methods require complex, costly purpose-built systems, involve image post-processing and struggle with sub-diffraction imaging in 3D. Here, we realize a conceptually different super-resolution approach which circumvents these limitations and enables 3D sub-diffraction imaging on conventional confocal microscopes. We refer to it as super-linear excitation-emission (SEE) microscopy, as it relies on markers with super-linear dependence of the emission on the excitation power. Super-linear markers proposed here are upconversion nanoparticles of NaYF4, doped with 20% Yb and unconventionally high 8% Tm, which are conveniently excited in the near-infrared biological window. We develop a computational framework calculating the 3D resolution for any viable scanning beam shape and excitation-emission probe profile. Imaging of colominic acid-coated upconversion nanoparticles endocytosed by neuronal cells, at resolutions twice better than the diffraction limit both in lateral and axial directions, illustrates the applicability of SEE microscopy for sub-cellular biology.

Link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-11603-0

Science on show – what’s on in National Science Week

7 August 2019:

The CNBP and its researchers are taking part in a wide range of activities for National Science Week.

This Thursday 8 August researcher Dr Wei Deng from UNSW Sydney will explain how nanotechnogy is changing how we treat cancer, as part of Inspiring Australia’s Talking Science series.

It will be held at the Max Webber Library, in Blacktown, Sydney. More details here.

On Sunday, 11 August, Adelaide University’s Lyndsey Collins-Praino will host Kids Navigate Neuroscience, an event at which children aged 4-10 can explore how the brain works in a fun and hands-on way by participating in a series of interactive neuroscience exhibits.

You can find out more about the event here. Bookings are essential and can be made through Eventbrite.

On Tuesday 13 August explore medical brain research by joining Dr Lindsay Parker, a researcher at Macquarie University, as she discusses how she is trying to create better medicines for Alzheimer’s, chronic pain and brain cancer, by only targeting the unhealthy cells in the brain.

This event is part of Inspiring Australia’s Talking Science series as part of National Science Week. Bookings available now. Contact details:
Castle Hill Library
The Hills Shire Library Service
Email: libraryseminars@thehills.nsw.gov.au
Phone: 02 9761 4510
https://www.scienceweek.net.au/exploring-medical-brain-research/

There is a fun evening next Friday, 16 August, at the Adelaide Medical School, University of Adelaide, where you can explore the neuroscience of sex, drugs and salsa dancing.

A series of interactive exhibits will address questions such as, what role does the brain play in sexual attraction? Can you salsa dance your way to a healthy brain? How does the brain perceive different flavours when drinking wine, and how can pairing wine with different foods alter this perception?

More details here and bookings are through Eventbrite.

Also next Friday, 16 August, the whole family is invited to see some amazing short videos on a massive screen in a free National Science Week Event hosted by STEMSEL Foundation Braggs Lecture Theatre, University of Adelaide AI Light Science Spectacular.

You will find out how the eye works, how NASA finds planets in other solar systems and how detected the edge of the Universe.

You will also explore light, from nanoscale biophotonics with CNBP research fellow Dr Roman Kostecki to exploring the Universe with Dr Jerry Madakbas, a photonics physicist who builds night vision sensors for NASA.

You can book through Eventbrite.

Also on Friday night:

What role does the brain play in sexual attraction? Can you salsa dance your way to a healthy brain? How does the brain perceive different flavours when drinking wine, and how can pairing wine with different foods alter this perception?

These days, you can’t seem to walk through the aisle of a grocery store without being bombarded by newspaper and magazine headlines touting the latest and greatest breakthrough in neuroscience research. But how can you tell fact from fiction?

Join us for this Big Science Adelaide event, held at the Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences (AHMS) building at the University of Adelaide, where we’ll explore the answers to these questions and many more!

More details at https://www.scienceweek.net.au/neuroscience-at-night/ 
Finally, CNBP researchers will be taking part in Science in the Swamp, a fun, free family festival of science displays, shows and activities on Sunday 18 August in Centennial Park, Sydney.

Join scientists as they show what amazing superpowers you find in nature – super sight, super hearing, super strength and camouflage are only some of the capabilities on show.

Be sure to put on your cape and dress up as your favourite superhero for this great event. You can find out more details here.

Nanoparticle discovery another step towards personalised medicine

1 August 2019:

A team led by the CNBP’s Dr Guozhen Liu has developed intelligent biodegradable polymer nanoparticles, which can help monitor a cell-signalling protein, or cytokine, widely expressed in cancer cells. The technique can help with earlier diagnostics and even treatment and represents another step towards personalised nanomedicine.

The research integrates a specific fluorogen – a molecule that generates fluorescence and can be used for protein monitoring – with PLGA nanoparticles for the first time.

The fluorogen in question is a so-called “aggregation-induced emission” fluorogen, known as an AIEgen. Aggregation-induced emission (AIE), has become an important area of research since its discovery around 20 years ago. It describes an abnormal phenomenon, in which some compounds show greater fluorescence as they aggregate than when in solution, as is more common. These AIEgens provide superior advantages for biosensing and bioimaging.

The integration of the nanoparticle and the AIEgen could become an important tool in the relatively new field of medicine known as “theranostics” – a combination of “therapy” and “diagnostics” made possible through the use of nanoparticles and an important transition towards personalised medicine.

Dr Liu’s discovery, for example, detects high levels of the cytokine VEGF-A found in tumor cells, and monitors simultaneous photothermal therapy (PTT), in which heat is used to kill cancer cells, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as part of a whole package of early diagnostics and treatment of cancer cells.

It could be used in the future as a smart drug delivery system, with cancer drugs loaded in the nanoparticles for controlled and sustained release targeted precisely to a tumor.
In the future, Dr Liu believes it will be possible to develop the next generation of intelligent nanoparticles which can continually monitor cytokines and cytokine-triggered drug delivery while also carrying out deep tissue imaging.

Dr Liu is an ARC Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering at UNSW.

You can read the paper here.

Journal: Nanomedicine

Publication Title: AIEgen based poly(L-lactic-co-glycolic acid) magnetic nanoparticles to localize cytokine VEGF for early cancer diagnosis and photothermal therapy

Authors: Ma, K (Ma, Ke); Liu, GJ (Liu, Guo-Jun); Yan, LL (Yan, Lulin); Wen, SH (Wen, Shihui); Xu, B (Xu, Bin); Tian, WJ (Tian, Wenjing); Goldys, EM (Goldys, Ewa M.); Liu, GZ (Liu, Guozhen)

Abstract: Aim: We demonstrated a novel theranostic system for simultaneous photothermal therapy and magnetic resonance imaging applicable to early diagnostics and treatment of cancer cells. Materials & methods: Oleic acid-Fe3O4 and triphenylamine-divinylanthracene-dicyano were loaded to the poly(L-lactic-co-glycolic acid) nanoparticles (NPs) on which anti-VEGF antibodies were modified to form anti-VEGF/OA-Fe3O4/triphenylamine-divinylanthracene-dicyano@poly(L-lactic-co-glycolic acid) NPs. The 1H nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), mass spectra, fluorescence, UV absorption, dynamic light scattering, transmission electron microscope and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry tests were used to characterize the NPs, and the bioimaging was illustrated by confocal laser scanning microscope (CLSM) and in vivo MRI animal experiment. Results: This system was capable to recognize the overexpressed VEGF-A as low as 68pg/ml in different cell lines with good selectivity and photothermal therapy effect. Conclusion: These ultrasensitive theranostic NPs were able to identify tumor cells by fluorescence imaging and MRI, and destroy tumors under near infrared illumination.

Keywords:
Author Keywords: AIEgen; cytokines; MRI; PDT; PLGA nanoparticle; PTT; theranostics

KeyWords Plus: ENDOTHELIAL GROWTH-FACTOR; IN-VIVO; ANGIOGENESIS; THERANOSTICS; NANOSPHERES; APTASENSOR; EXPRESSION; PROGNOSIS; MEDICINE; PROBE

Link: http://gateway.webofknowledge.com/gateway/Gateway.cgi?GWVersion=2&SrcAuth=Alerting&SrcApp=Alerting&DestApp=WOS_CPL&DestLinkType=FullRecord&UT=WOS:000473676900008

5 ways nanoscale biophotonics could help your family

30 July 2019:

Biophotonics is a technique with so many applications it’s hard to know where to start.
While you probably have never heard of most of them, the technology is transforming the way we study human health.

Improving pregnancy success rates

A lot of what we know about fertilisation and embryo development has come from in vitro experiments – those carried out in a test tube. How much better if we could observe these processes inside real, live female bodies.

Well new technologies, using nanoscale biophotonics, let us do precisely that.

High powered sensors, harnessing the power of light, can zoom in on the chemistry of pregnancy to deepen our understanding of all the ingredients needed to grow a healthy baby for nine months.

Safer brain surgery

The tiny imaging probe, encased within a brain biopsy needle, lets surgeons “see” at-risk blood vessels as they insert the needle. That helps stop potentially fatal bleeds.

The smart needle, being developed by CNBP researchers at the University of Adelaide, contains a tiny fibre-optic camera, the size of a human hair, shining infrared light to see the vessels before the needle can damage them.

The needle is connected to computer software that can alert the surgeon in real-time.
It has already gone through a pilot trial with 12 patients at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Western Australia and will soon be ready for formal clinical trials.

Early diagnosis of common health problems

Our cells often signal ill health long before symptoms appear. And as we all know, early diagnosis can often mean the difference between life and death.

That inspired CNBP researchers to look for a general marker for ill health and then to work on a means of detecting it.

They settled on the cytokines, a type of protein secreted by cells in the immune system that can signal a whole range of conditions including arthritis, tissue trauma, depression or even cancer.

The problem up to now has been that cytokines are extremely hard to measure and quantify – there is not many of them at any time, they are extremely small and exist in an environment of much background noise and interference.

So CNBP researchers developed nanotools to monitor cytokines in living humans. They engineered the surfaces of nanomaterials such as gold nanoparticles, graphene oxides and magnetic nanoparticles to sense the presence of cytokines, providing an ultra-powerful tool for early detection.

Removing more cancer cells the first time

One of the biggest problems for cancer surgeons is making sure they remove all the cancer cells while leaving as much healthy tissue intact as possible. But it can be hard to tell the two apart – in 15-20% of cases the patient requires follow-up surgery to remove tumour tissue that was missed the first time. It is particularly difficult to differentiate with breast cancer.

Now CNBP researchers, in collaboration with clinicians at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, have developed a sensor which can potentially help surgeons to tell the difference between healthy and cancerous tissue in real time, which could significantly increase the surgery success rate for many cancers.

The probe works by measuring the pH of the surface of the tissue, an indicator of whether the tissue is healthy or tumorous. The tip of an optical fibre is coated with a pH sensitive indicator, and the signal read out uses a low-cost light emitting diode and portable spectrometer.

Less painful, more accurate testing for prostate cancer

It has long been a goal to replace invasive needle biopsies to test for prostate cancer with a simple urine test. Not only would that be great for the patients, it would also be cheaper and faster. But current urine diagnostic tools are just not sensitive enough.

For a test to be useful for early diagnosis and treatment, it would need to detect just 10 cancer cells in a large volume of urine. Biophotonics could solve this problem.

CNBP is working with Minomic International and Macquarie University to develop a new method of fluorescent staining and imaging prostate cancer cells so they become highly visible, glowing when viewed under a special microscope.

The capacity to quantify single prostate cancer cells has the potential to revolutionise the diagnostics industry.

Shedding light on nanoparticles for better bio-imaging

25 July 2019:

CNBP researcher Dr Nafisa Zohora has been awarded her PhD in applied physics by Melbourne’s RMIT University. Her research project looked at materials that could be used as an alternative to available fluorophores – the fluorescent chemical compounds used in a variety of biological research projects.

The discoveries of the project solves a significant problem that was stopping scientists obtaining good images of biological samples.

Fluorophores are used to stain specific cells, for example, which are then observed and analysed by a fluorescence microscope. They are used as biomarkers to identify a range of bioactive molecules such as antibodies or proteins.

But for the fluorophores to re-emit light, they must first absorb it in a process known as “excitation” – usually brought about with a laser.

The problem is, though, that some compounds just do not absorb enough with low power excitation to produce enough fluorescence to be seen under the microscope. But higher power, from greater exposure to a laser for example, can also generate so much heat that the sample is destroyed.

The fluorophores are also inclined to lose their ability to emit within a few seconds with repeated exposure to the laser, not giving enough time to take a good image.

Nafisa set out to find a solution to both these issues. She began by studying the commercially available nanoparticle fluorophores such as cuprous oxide (Cu2O), titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc oxide (ZnO) but couldn’t find the properties she was looking for.

She then decided to synthesise her own nanoparticles.

After two years of hard work, she had successfully developed a methodology to synthesis Cu2O nanocubes that become very bright with a very low power excitation.

What’s more they are photostable for several hours under repeated exposure to a laser – so both problems solved!

In a follow-up collaboration with the University of Adelaide, Nafisa tested the nanoparticles for their toxicity to cells, giving them a clean bill.

Her work uncovering the exceptional properties of the synthesised Cu2O nanoparticles opens up new possible applications in detecting antigens and other long-term bio-imaging applications.

Nafisa’s supervisors were Professor Brant Gibson (Physics, RMIT University), Dr Ahmad Kandjani (Chemistry, RMIT University) and Professor Mark Hutchinson (The University of Adelaide). She completed her PhD on 1 July 2019, and her graduation ceremony will be in December.

Finding a way to shutdown rogue cell replication

24 July 2019:

Almost all cells replace themselves by replicating, but when there are errors in DNA-replication, it can lead to diseases including many cancers.

DNA-replication is complex and involves a host of protein machinery. One of the most important is the protein PCNA, which helps orchestrate the process.

Adelaide University postgraduate student Aimee Horsfall, a member of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale Biophotonics (CNBP), was part of the team which analysed the structures of a number of proteins interacting with PCNA.

The work suggests that the 3D shape of these proteins defines how strongly this interaction occurs.

The research is important because, if we can understand what makes the interaction with PCNA stronger, and determine the optimal shape, we can develop a drug that mimics it.

This drug could bind PCNA and stop replication in diseased cells, offering a potential treatment for diseases implicated in erroneous DNA-replication, or as a broad spectrum cancer therapeutic.

Journal: ChemBioChem

Publication Title: Targeting PCNA with peptide mimetics for therapeutic purposes.

Authors: Horsfall AJ, Abell AD, Bruning J.

Abstract: PCNA is an excellent inhibition target to shut down highly proliferative cells and thereby develop a broad spectrum cancer therapeutic. It interacts with a wide variety of proteins through a conserved motif referred to as the PCNA-Interacting Protein (PIP) box. There is large sequence diversity between high affinity PCNA binding partners, with conservation of the binding structure – a well-defined 310-helix. Here, all current PIP-box peptides crystallised with human PCNA are collated to reveal common trends between binding structure and affinity. Key intra- and inter-molecular hydrogen bonding networks which stabilise the 310-helix of PIP-box partners are highlighted, and related back to the canonical PIP-box motif. High correlation with the canonical PIP-box sequence does not directly afford high affinity. Instead, we summarise key interactions which stabilise the binding structure that lead to enhanced PCNA binding affinity. These interactions also implicate the ‘non-conserved’ residues within the PIP-box that have previously been overlooked. Such insights will allow a more directed approach to develop therapeutic PCNA inhibitors.

Keywords: PCNA, peptide mimetics, PIP-box, sliding clamp, DNA replication

Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31247123

CNBP research wins Young Scientist Award

18 July 2019:

CNBP research fellow Dr Lindsay Parker, of Macquarie University, has won an award for the best research paper from an investigator under 40, at an international conference in Rome.

Lindsay’s work is aimed at better understanding molecules ex-pressed in the brain during pain, brain diseases and brain cancer. This could lead to improved precision drugs that specifically target only the unhealthy cells in the brain.

She won a “Young Scientist Award” at the 41st PIERS (Photonics & Electromagnetics Research Symposium) held at the University of Rome in June.

Her paper, “Utilising Glycobiology for Fluorescent Nanodiamond Uptake and Imaging in the Central Nervous System” was in the category “Remote Sensing, Inverse Problems, Imaging, Radar & Sensing”.

The paper, in collaboration with RMIT University and the University of Colorado Boulder, investigated the ability of lectin-coated fluorescent nanodiamonds to recognise specific central nervous system cell types.

The prize included cash, and an invitation to the Symposium Banquet held at Palazzo Brancaccio. Lindsay also received travel awards from MQ University Primary Carer Support for Conference Attendance ($2000) and MQ Research Centre for Diamond Science and Technology ($1000) which meant her partner and baby William were also able to be in Rome with her as she worked.

While she was in Europe, Lindsay took the opportunity to give invited talks at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague and at the University of Groningen in Netherlands while visiting two other labs working in similar research areas to her synthetic nanochemistry expert Dr Petr Cigler and nanobiotechnology expert A/Prof Romana Schirhagl.

Diamonds improve orthopaedic implants

17 July 2019:

3D printing of titanium has made patient-specific orthopaedic implants possible, promising to dramatically improve many people’s quality of life.

But, despite the huge potential, there are still significant problems to overcome, particularly in how the implants integrate with human tissue and bone.

Associate Professor Kate Fox from RMIT University in Melbourne, an Associate Investigator with the CNBP, led the team which, in a previous study, showed that a thin film coating of diamond could provide a better surface for cells to interact.

A new paper, Engineering the Interface: Nanodiamond Coating on 3D-Printed Titanium Promotes Mammalian Cell Growth and Inhibits Staphylococcus aureus Colonization expands on that work.

It describes how applying a nanodiamond (ND) coating on to the 3D printed titanium increased the cell density of both skin bone cells after three days of growth compared to the uncoated 3D printed titanium.

The study also showed an 88% reduction of Staphylococcus aureus – or Golden Staph – adherence to ND-coated substrates compared to those without.

This study, whose lead author is Aaquil Rifai, from RMIT, paves a way to create antifouling structures for biomedical implants.

You can read the paper here.

Journal: ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces

Publication Title:  Engineering the Interface: Nanodiamond Coating on 3D-Printed Titanium Promotes Mammalian Cell Growth and Inhibits Staphylococcus aureus Colonization

Authors: Aaqil Rifai*, Nhiem Tran, Philipp Reineck, Aaron Elbourne, Edwin Mayes, Avik Sarker, Chaitali Dekiwadia, Elena P. Ivanova, Russell J. Crawford, Takeshi Ohshima, Brant C. Gibsonm, Andrew D. Greentree, Elena Pirogova, and Kate Fox*

Abstract:  Additively manufactured selective laser melted titanium (SLM-Ti) opens the possibility of tailored medical implants for patients. Despite orthopedic implant advancements, significant problems remain with regard to suboptimal osseointegration at the interface between the implant and the surrounding tissue. Here, we show that applying a nanodiamond (ND) coating onto SLM-Ti scaffolds provides an improved surface for mammalian cell growth while inhibiting colonization of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Owing to the simplicity of our methodology, the approach is suitable for coating SLM-Ti geometries. The ND coating achieved 32 and 29% increases in cell density of human dermal fibroblasts and osteoblasts, respectively, after 3 days of incubation compared with the uncoated SLM-Ti substratum. This increase in cell density complements an 88% reduction in S. aureus detected on the ND-coated SLM-Ti substrata. This study paves a way to create facile antifouling SLM-Ti structures for biomedical implants.

Key Words: nanodiamond, antifouling, 3D printing, biomaterial, implants

What is Nanoscale Biophotonics?

15 July 2019:

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics have an early hurdle to jump when trying to explain their research to friends, family and the general public.

What on earth is nanoscale biophotonics?

While nothing about the field could exactly be called “simple”, it does become easier to understand when we realise that light can be put to some unusual uses.

And in biophotonics, that is as a tool to measure and detect all manner of things, from the genes that give away the presence of a pathogen, to chemicals released as part of our bodies reactions to the environment, and the fatty deposits that could mean you are at risk of a heart attack.

Dr Georgina Sylva, a recent winner of a A$20,000 #STEMstart grant, simplifies matters by breaking the definition of “nanoscale biophotonics” down for us.

“Nanoscale means things that are on a really, really tiny scale. Things that are a nanometre in size”.

At that scale (and a nanometre is equal to one billionth of a metre) it is way beyond the limitations of an ordinary microscope to see – and that’s where light comes in.

“Biophotonics refers to studying and understanding biology using light,” says Georgina.

“Photonics is how we play with light and how we use light. We are able to use the properties of light – the way that it can act as a particle or a wave to see very small things – to detect, to sense, to image, to measure things.

“Nanoscale biophotonics allows us to get a really good close-up image of what’s happening in a biological environment. The whole point of that is to understand how we can solve biological problems.”

Until nanoscale biophotonics, we have been in the dark about much of the activity inside human cells because we didn’t have the right technology to see them. But by using light we can measure almost anything – the chemicals released at the precise moment a human egg is fertilised, for example, or the Ph of a baby’s blood during birth to detect the risk of oxygen deprivation.

Just as astronomy’s Hubble Telescope has allowed us to suddenly view exoplanets and distant galaxies, nanoscale biophotonics has revealed our “inner space”, a new world for scientists to explore.

So, what are the applications of nanoscale biophotonics, and how might this field influence health and medicine? Read our next blog post How nanoscale biophotonics is already making our lives better.