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Nanotech: inside cells

New Scientist

Biochemists are deploying viruses as "nano-cameras" to get a unique picture of what goes on inside living cells and a greater understanding of how viruses themselves work.

A team led by Bogdan Dragnea at Indiana University in Bloomington is exploiting the ability of viruses laden with gold to break into cells, along with the viral shell's own telltale response to laser light. Together these give an unprecedented picture of the chemical and physical activity in cells.

Researchers currently study living cells using a technique called Raman spectroscopy. When laser light bounces off some materials, most of the scattered light has the same wavelength as the incident light. But a fraction called the Raman spectrum has an altered wavelength due to the characteristic vibration of some molecules in the material.

This allows researchers to map the coarser features of a cell, such as its nucleus. But Raman spectra are very weak. Introducing gold nanoparticles into cells enhances the Raman signal more than fivefold, because electrons on the surface of the nanoparticle interact with and reinforce the scattered light.

Unfortunately, the cell treats gold nanoparticles as foreign bodies and quickly clears them out. But viruses are already able to avoid ejection. So Dragnea and his team decided to use them as Trojan horses to smuggle the particles into living cells.

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