Quantum Dots Get Smaller

For all the hype about nanotechnology, sometimes small isn't quite small enough.

Karen Heyman(kheyman@the-scientist.com)
May 8, 2005

For all the hype about nanotechnology, sometimes small isn't quite small enough. Quantum dots enable imaging advances in fields from oncology to neuroscience, yet at a whopping dozen nanometers or more, sometimes they're just too big. "They're the size of proteins," says Marcel P. Bruchez, cofounding scientist at Quantum Dots Corp. "Anything you can do to minimize the size will minimize the impact on the biological system."

A quantum dot's size governs the color of light it emits, but the size that determines the optical properties is only the core-shell. The problem is that for biological applications, quantum dots must be changed from being hydrophobic as grown, to hydrophilic, without a loss in fluorescence or stability.

The solution is to create the high-tech equivalent of a peanut M&M: a semiconductor core (usually cadmium sulfide, selenide, or telluride), coated by an insulating shell, which is then given a ligand coating, sometimes...


Though earlier work has been published on peptide-coated quantum dots, Mattoussi says that Weiss has the first published results that show controlled binding and targeting. (Mattoussi's work with Dawson has a similar goal – to prepare compact quantum dot-peptide conjugates – but uses a different approach. A patent application has been submitted on this method, and a manuscript is in preparation.)

Researchers using FRET could find the resulting smaller size advantageous, says Dawson. "If you want to do a FRET study where you're looking for energy transfer between two fluorophores, one would be the dot, the other would be an organic fluorophore or quenching molecule," he explains, "With many of the very large polymer-coated dots, by the time you get to the surface of that polymer coating, you're at the very longest distance that is effective for FRET because you're a very long away from the center of the quantum dot. One of the significant things I've seen from Hedi's [Mattoussi's] group is that they've been able to put other fluorophores much closer to the dot, and then been able to use energy transfer to monitor molecular interactions using quantum dots."

Bruchez says currently available dots from QDC would likely be no more than six nanometers larger than the peptide dots, but that variation, he concedes, could be an important difference in certain situations, such as working with ion channels.

Both Bruchez and Clinton Ballinger, CEO of Evident Technologies, another quantum dot supplier, say their customers seem to prefer generic type dots with hydrophilic ligands that can bind to any biomolecule researchers care to attach. Evident Technologies has just released second-generation EviTags that have what Ballinger calls a "more natural" lipid coating. "The coating is so thin, you can have FRET across it, so you can tunnel between the dot and the dye that attaches to the dot. There's not a lot of distance between the dot and the dye."


Researchers would also like to harness quantum dots to monitor events in the nucleus. As with FRET, nuclear transport is bounded by size constraints, in this case the diameter of the nuclear pore, which is between 20 and 50 nm. Quantum dots typically come very close to that limit, measuring on average 12 to 30 nm in diameter when solubilized.

Chemist Fanqing Chen of Berkeley Lab and physicist Daniele Gerion of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory published a solution to this problem last year in Nano Letters,3 and again this past March at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in San Diego. "I think it was the first time I've seen that kind of work successfully done with the quantum dots," says Bruchez. "I thought it was a very exciting talk and a real step forward in the power of peptides in biological targeting."

Chen and Gerion based their approach on the 1998 work of Paul Alivasatas, with whom Gerion did her postdoctoral research.4 Ironically, it should not have made for smaller dots, says Bawendi, since it involves a multilayered approach. Yet that is exactly what the pair achieved: engineering dots that are small enough (10–15 nm in diameter) to track the biological processes inside the nucleus of live HeLa cells.

Chen and Gerion attached a nuclear localization signal from the SV40 virus large T antigen to the dots to target them to the nucleus. Dots conjugated to a random peptide, in contrast, distributed about the cell, but remained locked out of the nucleus. Chen says they plan next to use HIV-TAT to deliver the dots, since it will likely be more efficient. They hope to attach protein targeting mechanisms to the quantum dots to follow other processes such as DNA replication or transcription, and then imaging them in real-time over hours, if not days. "A lot of reactions you see in vitro don't really exist in vivo," says Chen. "This will be a way to find that out."



© 2004 American Chemical Society

NLS-coupled quantum dots localize to the nucleus (A) and in the perinuclear region (B). Dots coupled to a random peptide sequence, however, localize randomly around the cells (C). Top row, phase contrast image; central row, fluorescence image; bottom row, overlay image. In certain cases, such as the cell at the far left of panel A, NLS-quantum dots localized inside the nucleus reveal finer nuclear structures such as nucleoli, one of which is indicated with an arrow. Scale bars: 10 μm. (Reprinted with permission from F. Chen et al., Nano Letters, 4:1827–32, 2004.)

Though smaller dots may generate the instant "ooh-aah" factor, Weiss sees the real value of his work as providing a "peptide toolkit," which will advance the potential applications of quantum dots. "We can put a mixture of different peptides on each particle," says Weiss. "It makes the dots look like proteins. If they look like proteins, you can almost give them the function of proteins. Beyond having just fluorescence of different colors, you can actually put on a dot's surface an antibody, an enzyme, a PEG [polyethylene glycol] that allows for better solubility, a chelator that can actually carry with it a radioactive tracer."

In other words, quantum dots should be viewed as a platform upon which to scaffold additional functions. The same dot that a researcher uses initially for imaging could then be enabled to perform other biological roles by adding additional peptides. "We have that adhesive sequence that is the same," says Weiss, "but then the hydrophilic part of that peptide can take all the functions that we want, so in one step you can have all these different functions."

Which doesn't sound so different from what's already available, say both Bawendi and quantum dot expert Shuming Nie5 of the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. "I think it's interesting, but it doesn't offer any real advantages over the materials from [Quantum Dot Corp.]," says Nie. "It's difficult to control the number of ligands per dot and the orientation of ligands on the dot. Some orientations are better than others. These problems can determine the bioactivity of the quantum dot. I don't think the peptides offer better specificity or control."

But Weiss' graduate student, Fabien Pinaud, says his group's method does allow for higher avidity than competing technologies. Multiple peptides mean multiple binding sites on the dot's surface, potentially overcoming the occasional problem of ligands "falling off" the quantum dots.

Although Bawendi says Weiss' work is "great," he is even more impressed with the review paper and its suggestions for extending the uses of quantum dots. (Mattoussi has also written a comprehensive review on quantum dot solubilization6; both his and Weiss' articles detail several solubilization methods in addition to the peptide-based approach.)

"The review itself is beautiful," says Bawendi. "It's a review paper that everybody's going to study, because he [Weiss] really shows what's possible to do with quantum dots, [such as] the different ways to use quantum dots to target things, to label with radionucleotides. It's really timely because those are all things that are possible to do with dots today, and you can do them with dots other than [Weiss'] dots."

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