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.