Optically Robust and Biocompatible Mechanosensitive Upconverting Nanoparticles

ACS Cent Sci. 2019 Jul 24;5(7):1211-1222. doi: 10.1021/acscentsci.9b00300. Epub 2019 Jul 9.


Upconverting nanoparticles (UCNPs) are promising tools for background-free imaging and sensing. However, their usefulness for in vivo applications depends on their biocompatibility, which we define by their optical performance in biological environments and their toxicity in living organisms. For UCNPs with a ratiometric color response to mechanical stress, consistent emission intensity and color are desired for the particles under nonmechanical stimuli. Here, we test the biocompatibility and mechanosensitivity of α-NaYF4:Yb,Er@NaLuF4 nanoparticles. First, we ligand-strip these particles to render them dispersible in aqueous media. Then, we characterize their mechanosensitivity (∼30% in the red-to-green spectral ratio per GPa), which is nearly 3-fold greater than those coated in oleic acid. We next design a suite of ex vivo and in vivo tests to investigate their structural and optical properties under several biorelevant conditions: over time in various buffers types, as a function of pH, and in vivo along the digestive tract of Caenorhabditis elegans worms. Finally, to ensure that the particles do not perturb biological function in C. elegans, we assess the chronic toxicity of nanoparticle ingestion using a reproductive brood assay. In these ways, we determine that mechanosensitive UCNPs are biocompatible, i.e., optically robust and nontoxic, for use as in vivo sensors to study animal digestion.