Biomimetic virus-based colourimetric sensors

Nat Commun. 2014;5:3043. doi: 10.1038/ncomms4043.


Many materials in nature change colours in response to stimuli, making them attractive for use as sensor platform. However, both natural materials and their synthetic analogues lack selectivity towards specific chemicals, and introducing such selectivity remains a challenge. Here we report the self-assembly of genetically engineered viruses (M13 phage) into target-specific, colourimetric biosensors. The sensors are composed of phage-bundle nanostructures and exhibit viewing-angle independent colour, similar to collagen structures in turkey skin. On exposure to various volatile organic chemicals, the structures rapidly swell and undergo distinct colour changes. Furthermore, sensors composed of phage displaying trinitrotoluene (TNT)-binding peptide motifs identified from a phage display selectively distinguish TNT down to 300 p.p.b. over similarly structured chemicals. Our tunable, colourimetric sensors can be useful for the detection of a variety of harmful toxicants and pathogens to protect human health and national security.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteriophage M13* / chemistry
  • Bacteriophage M13* / genetics
  • Biomimetic Materials*
  • Biosensing Techniques / instrumentation*
  • Biosensing Techniques / methods
  • Collagen / chemistry
  • Colorimetry / instrumentation*
  • Colorimetry / methods
  • Genetic Engineering*
  • Models, Animal
  • Nanostructures
  • Skin / chemistry
  • Trinitrotoluene
  • Turkeys


  • Trinitrotoluene
  • Collagen