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The Incredible, Edible Optic

Photonics.com
Aug 2008
MEDFORD, Mass., Aug. 11, 2008 -- Sophisticated optical devices currently under development could allow you to safely eat that piece of cake and the sensor, too.

Using fibers from silkworms to develop platform devices, scientists at Tufts University's School of Engineering demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to design "living" optical elements that could enable a new class of sensors. These sensors would combine sophisticated nanoscale optics with biological readout functions and would be biocompatable and biodegradable, as well as able to be manufactured and stored at room temperatures, without the use of toxic chemicals.

The edible optical sensor could be placed in produce bags, for example, to detect harmful levels of bacteria, and consumed right along with the veggies. Another possible application is as an implantable device that would monitor blood glucose in the blood for a year, then dissolve.

"Sophisticated optical devices that are mechanically robust yet fully biodegradable, biocompatible and implantable don't exist today," said principal investigator Fiorenzo Omenetto, associate professor of biomedical engineering and associate professor of physics. "Such systems would greatly expand the use of current optical technologies in areas like human and livestock health, environmental monitoring and food quality."

"For example, at a low cost, we could potentially put a bioactive silk film in every bag of spinach, and it could give the consumer a readout of whether or not E. coli bacteria were in the bag -- before the food was consumed," said David Kaplan, professor and chair of the biomedical engineering department.

Today's optical device platforms are based primarily on glass, semiconductors, plastics or polymers. But the harsh solvents and extreme temperatures needed for manufacture make it impossible to incorporate bioactive sensing components into the devices. Chemical residues and lack of biodegradability also limit environmental and medical applications. Also, biological components typically need to be stored at controlled temperatures to retain their activity.

The possibility of integrating optical readout and biological function in a single biocompatible device unconstrained by these limitations is tantalizing. Silk optics has captured the interest of the Defense Department, which has funded and been instrumental in enabling rapid progress on the topic. DARPA awarded Tufts a research contract in 2007 and is funding Tufts and others on groundbreaking projects that could someday result in biodegradable optical sensing communications technology.

Silk proteins are, literally, a natural for integrating optical and biological functions. They can be processed in water at ordinary temperatures and patterned on the nanoscale to generate a wide range of optical elements, including ultrathin films, thick films, and nanoscale and large-diameter fibers. Silk proteins also offer excellent surface quality and transparency, which are perquisites for high-quality optics. Equally important, they are mechanically robust.

"Silks spun by spiders and silkworms represent the strongest and toughest natural fibers known. They offer many opportunities for functionalization, processing and biological integration when compared to conventional polymers," said Kaplan, an expert on natural biomaterials like silk.

To form the devices, the scientists boiled cocoons of the Bombyx mori silkworm in a water solution and extracted the glue-like sericin proteins. The purified silk protein solution was ultimately poured onto negative molds of ruled and holographic diffraction gratings with spacing as fine as 3600 grooves/mm. The cast silk solution was air dried to create solid fibroin silk films that were cured in water, dried and optically evaluated. A similar process was followed to create lenses, microlens arrays and holograms. Film thicknesses from 10 to 100 µm were characterized for transparency and optical quality.

The variety and quality of the optical elements compared favorably with conventional platforms and outperformed other commonly used biopolymers.

However, the most compelling feature of the platform, according to the researchers, is that the elements are prepared, processed and optimized in all-aqueous environments and at ambient temperature. This makes possible the inclusion of sensitive biological "receptors" within the solution that stay active after the solution has hardened into a free-standing silk optical element.

The team embedded three very different biological agents in the silk solution: a protein (hemoglobin), an enzyme (horseradish peroxidase) and an organic pH indicator (phenol red). In the hardened silk optical element, all three agents maintained their activity for long periods when simply stored on a shelf. "We have optical devices embedded with enzymes that are still active after almost a year of storage at room temperature. This is amazing given that the same enzyme becomes inactive if forgotten and left unrefrigerated for a few days," said Omenetto."

Researchers also found that it was possible to alter the propagation of light through the silk optic as a function of the embedded dopant to create an optical signal of the biological activity.

Tufts has filed a number of patent applications on silk-based optics and is actively exploring commercialization opportunities.

The research was published in a recent paper in Biomacromolecules by Brian D. Lawrence, graduate student in biomedical engineering; Mark Cronin-Golomb, associate professor, biomedical engineering; Irene Georgakoudi, assistant professor, biomedical engineering; Kaplan and Omenetto.

For more information, visit: www.tufts.edu


GLOSSARY
optical
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
photonics
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
sensor
1. A generic term for detector. 2. A complete optical/mechanical/electronic system that contains some form of radiation detector.
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