CORDIS - EU research results

A Synthetic Biology Approach to Developing Optical NanoAnalytics

Project description

Carbon nanotubes are a beacon of light in highly sensitive biosensors

Nature is often the source of inspiration for scientists and engineers, and sensing is perhaps one of the most important functions relevant to biomedical applications. Often, scientists seek to duplicate nature's capabilities. Increasingly, they are able to surpass them, particularly when biological molecules and processes are used as components of sophisticated human-made systems. The EU-funded NanoBiOptics project plans to exploit the combined advantages of biomaterials such as artificial nucleic acids and nanomaterials such as single-walled carbon nanotubes. The use of bioengineering techniques will enable scientists to overcome inherent limitations of current engineered nanosensors, resulting in a new generation of highly sensitive optical sensors for bioanalyte detection.


Bioengineering is the synthetic biologist’s approach to engineering materials. It allows researchers to overcome billions of years of evolution to create unnatural biomolecules equipped with interactions unfounded in nature. Biomolecules offer unparalleled molecular recognition that can be tuned by engineers to create highly specific sensors. Unfortunately, biology has its limits; many biological optical sensors rely on fluorophores with limited lifetimes and visible emissions that overlap with tissue absorption. Unlike these fluorophores, single-walled carbon nanotubes benefit from fluorescence that is indefinitely photostable, demonstrating sensitivities that can detect analytes down to the single molecule. Their near-infrared wavelengths are also transparent to tissue absorption, allowing for continuous in vivo sensing. Unfortunately, these nanomaterials lack the molecular recognition biology has to offer.

In a sense, the advantages and disadvantages posed by the fields of bio- and nano-materials engineering are highly complementary. This proposal envisions a new generation of NanoBiOptic devices – devices that exploit the synergy of nano-bio hybrids – for sensing applications. We aim to bring to the nanosensor community what directed evolution has brought to chemistry; a guided approach to tuning interactions. We apply bioengineering techniques, such as artificial nucleic acid design as well as directed evolution, to circumvent current limitations in engineering nanosensors. In demonstrating these techniques, we realize previously intractable optical platforms for bioanalyte detection, as well as a single-molecule basis for imaging DNA-protein interactions, such as those found in CRISPR. Synthetic biology thus has the potential to complement the physical sciences in the engineering of new synthetic optical platforms, enabling a “revolution through evolution” of synthetic nanomaterials.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 499 495,00
1015 Lausanne

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Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera Région lémanique Vaud
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 499 495,00

Beneficiaries (1)