Imagine tagging along with a single protein molecule inside of a living cell as it goes about its job: relaying growth signals into the cell’s nucleus, repairing damaged DNA, or switching on insulin production after a meal. For the first time in history, the evolving technology of biophotonics, which uses single “quantum” units of light, holds the key to unlocking that world.
Now, thanks to brighter light emitting dyes, faster and more sensitive detectors, automation technology and computing capacity that can handle storing vast amounts of image data, it is possible for scientists to probe the molecular mechanisms of life at unprecedented resolutions. The convergence of technological advances puts the formerly unthinkable within the grasp of scientific inquiry, offering unparalleled opportunities to understand the physiology of human disease and to find new ways to treat it.
In the most general terms biophotonics is the convergence of photonics and the life sciences.
Photonics—the science and technology of generation, manipulation and detection of light—uses photons, quantum-like particles of light, instead of electrons to transmit, process, and store information. The invention of lasers, a concentrated source of monochromatic and highly directional light, revolutionized photonics in the 1960s and brought us technological advancements such as bar code scanners, CD players, and, with fluorescence microscopes, the first taste of the power of biophotonics.
Today, biophotonics is widely regarded as the key science upon which the next generation of clinical tools and biomedical research instrumentation will be based. Although nature has used the principle of biophotonics to harness light for photosynthesis and to create vision for millennia, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that a substantial transfer of photonics technologies to biological applications began to transform medical and life sciences.The main areas of biophotonics applications include:
It is difficult to overestimate the amount of information contained in visual data, making high-powered microscopes the most important tool available to molecular biologists.
The resolution of conventional optical microscopes, including fluorescence microscopes, is inherently limited by the wavelength of light. With these microscopes, objects separated by less than 200 nanometers cannot be distinguished from one another, which is insufficient to pinpoint the location of individual proteins. For the first time, super-resolution live-cell imaging allows researchers to capture short videos of fast-moving cellular processes while discerning the precise location of nearly each individual protein they are studying.
The ability to probe and image (see) tissues is leading to a wide range of novel diagnostic methods and therapeutic applications. Current examples include Coherence Optical Tomography (OCT), which has revolutionized the field of Ophthalmology by allowing the early diagnosis of macular degeneration (MD) in the retina, and Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) approaches for treatment of cancers by retarding the growth of new blood vessels and vasculature.