This scanning electron microscope (SEM) image
shows a nanobeam probe, including a large part
of the handle tip, inserted in a typical cell.
(Photo: Gary Shambat, Stanford School of Engineering)

The Spark Within: Light-Emitting Bioprobe Fits in a Single Cell

by Andrew Myers for Stanford News
Stanford CA (SPX) Feb 18, 2013

If engineers at Stanford have their way, biological research may soon be transformed by a new class of light-emitting probes small enough to be injected into individual cells without harm to the host. Welcome to biophotonics, a discipline at the confluence of engineering, biology and medicine in which light-based devices – lasers and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) – are opening up new avenues in the study and influence of living cells.

The team described their probe in a paper published online February 13 by the journal Nano Letters. It is the first study to demonstrate that sophisticated engineered light resonators can be inserted inside cells without damaging the cell. Even with a resonator embedded inside, a cell is able to function, migrate and reproduce as normal.

Applications and implications

The researchers call their device a “nanobeam,” because it resembles a steel I-beam with a series of round holes etched through the center. These beams, however, are not massive, but measure only a few microns in length and just a few hundred nanometers in width and thickness.

It looks a bit like a piece from an erector set of old. The holes through the beams act like a nanoscale hall of mirrors, focusing and amplifying light at the center of the beam in what are known as photonic cavities. These are the building blocks for nanoscale lasers and LEDs.

“Devices like the photonic cavities we have built are quite possibly the most diverse and customizable ingredients in photonics,” said the paper’s senior author, Jelena Vuckovic, a professor of electrical engineering. “Applications span from fundamental physics to nanolasers and biosensors that could have profound impact on biological research.”

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