A cyanine dye acid test that won't drown in water
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IMAGE: Michigan Tech chemists grew living cells under different pH conditions, treated them with a new fluorescent cyanine dye and captured their images under different frequencies of light, both visible and… view more 

Credit: Haiying Liu/Michigan Tech

Near-infrared cyanine dyes are go-to tools for studying the inner workings of cells and investigating the biochemistry of disease, including cancer.

But even though they have low toxicity and plenty of applications, these fluorescent dyes have a weakness, says Haiying Liu, a professor of chemistry at Michigan Technological University. Put the dyes in water and they quit working. Their molecules clump together, or aggregate, which significantly reduces their brightness.

Liu and his team wondered if it had to be that way. “We thought it might be possible to use aggregation to turn on the dye’s fluorescence,” he says. “We wanted to turn a drawback into an advantage.”

So they built a new cyanine dye that works in water and has other beneficial properties. Their research was published recently in Chemical Communications.

Liu began by attaching the chemical tetraphenylethene (TPE) to a conventional cyanine dye that measures pH. The new dye does what the conventional dye does not: it fluoresces when it aggregates

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