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Highlights in Chemical Science

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Copper detection in cells


12 May 2010

Chinese scientists have created a dye that can be used in water to detect copper in living cells, which could help avoid diseases caused by copper accumulation in the body. 

The human body contains many copper-based enzymes that are essential for many biological processes. Over the years, research has shown that an accumulation of copper can sometimes lead to health issues, such as Wilson's, Alzhiemer's and Parkinson's disease. Therefore, it is imperative to develop sensors that can monitor copper ions in living cells and tissues, both easily and effectively to improve the understanding of biological processes involving copper.

Some colorimetric and fluorescent sensors allow copper to be monitored by eye or in living cells by using fluorescence microscopy, but their performance can be poor in aqueous media. Now, Hua Jiang and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have prepared a cyanine-based dye that shows good water solubility and cellular permeability, and enables copper detection in living cells. 

Merocyanine dye fluorescent image

Merocyanine dye allows copper to be detected using fluorescence spectroscopy

The sensor displays a significant colour change from reddish purple to yellow in the presence of copper ions and also acts as an 'on-off' fluorescent sensor, where the fluorescence turns-off once exposed to copper ions. 

'We are very excited about this copper sensor because it performs so well under aqueous buffer and in living cells. Our next step is planning to improve its sensitivity,' says Jiang. But he stresses that they are now working on improving the sensitivity so that the sensor could be applied to medicinal techniques.  

Emilio Palomares, a research profesor at the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia in Tarragona, Spain comments, 'this is a very nice, simple and easy method to detect not only Cu(II) ions but also other more toxic metal ions in cells.' 

Emma Shiells 

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Link to journal article

A colorimetric and fluorescent chemosensor for copper ions in aqueous media and its application in living cells
Huan-Huan Wang, Lin Xue, Zhang-Jian Fang, Guo-Ping Li and Hua Jiang, New J. Chem., 2010, 34, 1239
DOI: 10.1039/c0nj00168f

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