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Low-cost, sophisticated optical technology with broad application

Scientists developed a novel lab-on-a-chip optical platform designed to detect conformational changes in DNA with high sensitivity. The supporting technology should find extended application in numerous subfields of optics as well.
Low-cost, sophisticated optical technology with broad application
Interpretation of the DNA code, including proteins encoded and timing of expression depends on the interaction of DNA with other molecules related to details of its structure. The quest for a label-free way to study the physical dynamics of DNA provided the impetus for technology development within the context of the EU-funded project 'DNA sensor in polymer photonic crystal band-edge lasers with integrated nanochannels' (DNA-DAR).

Scientists produced a polymer-based microfluidic lab-on-a-chip platform exploiting two innovative and highly sensitive optical techniques compatible with fluidic nanochannels. The first is based on photonic crystals, novel periodic bandgap structures prohibiting the propagation of certain frequencies of light and enabling exquisite control and effects not possible with conventional optics. The second exploits plasmonic V-grooves, v-shaped waveguides with novel optical properties.

Plasmonic V-grooves formed the nanochannels, fabricated with cost-effective nanoimprint lithography. The V-grooves then enabled study of biological molecules, both confining them and causing conformational changes. This helped reveal detail otherwise difficult to observe while creating optical effects that significantly enhanced detection sensitivity.

DNA-DAR researchers employed photonic crystals to monitor small changes in refractive index (RI) related to the DNA molecule as it passed through the nanochannels. Two major technical advances greatly increased photonic crystal sensitivity, one a thin film with high RI and the other a swelling polymer film enabling sensing of both gases and low concentrations of particles.

Although the initial focus of DNA-DAR was on sensing biomolecules for basic research, diagnostics, forensics and other applications, the novel optical lab-on-a-chip technology developed is applicable to numerous other areas. These include optical networks, interior lighting and heads-up displays (HUDs). Outcomes have spawned other research projects, promising a continual evolution and application of the concepts covered in DNA-DAR.

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