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Label-free imaging of semiconducting and metallic carbon nanotubes in cells and mice using transient absorption microscopy

Abstract

As interest in the potential biomedical applications of carbon nanotubes increases1, there is a need for methods that can image nanotubes in live cells, tissues and animals. Although techniques such as Raman2,3,4, photoacoustic5 and near-infrared photoluminescence imaging6,7,8,9,10 have been used to visualize nanotubes in biological environments, these techniques are limited because nanotubes provide only weak photoluminescence and low Raman scattering and it remains difficult to image both semiconducting and metallic nanotubes at the same time. Here, we show that transient absorption microscopy offers a label-free method to image both semiconducting and metallic single-walled carbon nanotubes in vitro and in vivo, in real time, with submicrometre resolution. By using appropriate near-infrared excitation wavelengths, we detect strong transient absorption signals with opposite phases from semiconducting and metallic nanotubes. Our method separates background signals generated by red blood cells and this allows us to follow the movement of both types of nanotubes inside cells and in the blood circulation and organs of mice without any significant damaging effects.

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Figure 1: Semiconducting and metallic nanotubes exhibit strong transient absorption signals with opposite phases.
Figure 2: Comparison of transient absorption and AFM images of the same nanotube sample show that transient absorption microscopy can detect M-SWNTs and S-SWNTs in a chirality-insensitive manner.
Figure 3: Cellular uptake and intracellular trafficking of DNA-SWNTs monitored in real time by transient absorption microscopy.
Figure 4: Imaging of RBCs and F127-wrapped SWNTs (F127-SWNTs) circulating in the blood vessels of a mouse earlobe.
Figure 5: F127-SWNTs in different organs of treated mice are visualized by transient absorption microscopy at the cellular level.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Z. Zhong for providing the aligned SWNT samples, J.H. Choi for measuring the photoluminescence emission spectrum from SWNT samples, and A. Ivanisevic for assisting with AFM measurements. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant no. 0828832 to J.X.C.), the Bilsland Fellowship (L.T.) and the Walther Cancer Institute and Lilly Foundation (D.E.B.).

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L.T. and J.X.C. conceived and designed the experiments. L.T. and Y.L. performed the experiments. L.T. and Y.L. analysed the data. B.D.D., Y.J., M.N.S. and D.E.B. contributed materials and analysis tools. L.T. and J.X.C. co-wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ji-Xin Cheng.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Tong, L., Liu, Y., Dolash, B. et al. Label-free imaging of semiconducting and metallic carbon nanotubes in cells and mice using transient absorption microscopy. Nature Nanotech 7, 56–61 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nnano.2011.210

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