Carbon-based nanostructures with nanometer dimensions have been identified as potential photoluminescence probes for bioimaging due to their biocompatibility, tunable bandgap, and resistance to photobleaching. However, the influence of structural features of carbon quantum dots (CQDs) and graphene quantum dots (GQDs) in bioimaging has not been explored previously. In the present investigation, we elucidated the mechanism of higher PL in GQDs as compared to CQDs as a function of their structural features. TEM and AFM studies revealed that CQDs were spherical (size ~5 nm), while GQDs showed zigzag edges (size ~3 nm). Further, XRD and NMR studies confirmed that CQDs and GQDs show amorphous and crystalline structures with greater sp2 clusters, respectively. While both the QDs demonstrated multicolor fluorescence against variable excitations with similar lifetime, GQDs showed 7-fold higher QY than CQDs. Bioimaging studies in 2D cell culture, 3D tumoroids, and in vivo suggested a greater intensity of fluorescence in GQDs than CQDs. Additionally, rapid cell internalization was observed in GQDs owing to their positive surface potential by heterogeneous atomic (N and S) doping. Moreover, both CQDs and GQDs have demonstrated better time dependent stability for fluorescence properties. Taken together, the proposed mechanism elucidates the greater PL intensity in GQDs due to quantum confinement effect, crystallinity, and surface edge effects and is a better candidate for bioimaging amongst the carbon family.
Keywords: Bioimaging; Carbon quantum dots; Crystallinity; Graphene quantum dots; Photoluminescence; Quantum confinement effect.
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