Spectroscopy: A fine sense for molecules

January 01, 2020

Scientists at the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics have developed a unique laser technology for the analysis of the molecular composition of biological samples. It is capable of detecting minimal variations in the chemical make up of organic systems.

At the biochemical level, organisms can be thought of as complex collections of different species of molecules. In the course of their metabolism, biological cells synthesize chemical compounds, and modify them in multifarious ways. Many of these products are released into the intercellular medium and accumulate in body fluids like the blood. One major aim of biomedical research is to understand what these immensely complex mixtures of molecules can tell us about the state of the organism concerned. All differentiated cell types contribute to this 'soup'. But precancerous and malignant cells add their own specific molecular markers - and these provide the first indications of the presence of tumour cells in the body. So far, however, very few of these indicator molecules have been identified, and those that are known appear in minuscule amounts in biological samples. This makes them extremely difficult to detect. It is assumed that many of the most informative molecular signatures comprise combinations of compounds that belong to all the various types of molecules found in cells - proteins, sugars, fats and their diverse derivatives. In order to define them, a single analytical method that is versatile and sensitive enough to detect and measure the levels of all of them is needed.

An interdisciplinary team led by Prof. Ferenc Krausz has now built a new laser-based system that is specifically designed for this purpose. The group is based at the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics (LAP), which is run jointly by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich and the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics (MPQ), and it includes physicists, biologists and data scientists. This system enables one to obtain chemical fingerprints in the form of spectra of infrared light, which reveal the molecular compositions of samples of all sorts, including samples of biological origin. The technique offers unprecedented sensitivity and can be used for all known classes of biomolecules.

The new laser spectrometer builds on technologies that were originally developed in the LAP for the production of ultrashort laser pulses, which are used to study the ultrafast dynamics of subatomic systems. The instrument, which was built by physicist Ioachim Pupeza and his colleagues, is designed to emit trains of extremely powerful pulses of laser light that cover a broad segment of the spectrum in the infrared wavelength. Each of these pulses lasts for a few femtoseconds (in scientific notation 1 fs = 10 -15 s, one millionth of a billionth of a second). These extremely brief flashes of infrared light cause the bonds that link atoms together to vibrate. The effect is analogous to that of striking a tuning fork. After the passage of the pulse, the vibrating molecules emit coherent light at highly characteristic wavelengths or, equivalently, oscillation frequencies. The new technology makes it possible to capture the complete ensemble of wavelengths emitted. Since every distinct compound in the sample vibrates at a specific set of frequencies, it contributes its own well defined 'subspectrum' to the emission. No molecular species has anywhere to hide.

"With this laser, we can cover a wide range of infrared wavelengths - from 6 to 12 micrometers - that stimulate vibrations in molecules," says Marinus Huber, joint first author of the study and a member of biologist Mihaela Zigman's group, which was also involved in the experiments carried out in the LAP. "Unlike mass spectroscopy, this method provides access to all the types of molecules found in biological samples," she explains.

Each of the ultrashort laser pulses used to excite the molecules consists of only a few oscillations of the optical field. Moreover, the spectral brightness of the pulse (i.e. its photon density) is up to twice as high as those generated by conventional synchrotrons, which have hitherto served as radiation sources for comparable approaches to molecular spectroscopy. In addition, the infrared radiation is both spatially and temporally coherent. All of these physical parameters together account for the new laser system's extremely high sensitivity, enabling molecules present in very low concentrations to be detected and high-precision molecular fingerprints to be produced. Not only that, samples of living tissue up to 0.1 mm thick can, for the first time, be illuminated with infrared light and analyzed with unparalleled sensitivity. In initial experiments, the team at the LAP has applied the technique to leaves and other living cells, as well as blood samples. "This ability to accurately measure variations in he molecular composition of body fluids opens up new possibilities in biology and medicine, and in the future the technique could find application in the early detection of disorders," Zigman says.
-end-


Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Related Laser Articles from Brightsurf:

Laser-powered nanomotors chart their own course
The University of Tokyo introduced a system of gold nanorods that acts like a tiny light-driven motor, with its direction of motion is determined by the orientation of the motors.

What laser color do you like?
Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Maryland have developed a microchip technology that can convert invisible near-infrared laser light into any one of a panoply of visible laser colors, including red, orange, yellow and green.

Laser technology: The Turbulence and the Comb
While the light of an ordinary laser only has one single, well-defined wavelength, a so-called ''frequency comb'' consists of different light frequencies, which are precisely arranged at regular distances, much like the teeth of a comb.

A laser for penetrating waves
The 'Landau-level laser' is an exciting concept for an unusual radiation source.

Laser light detects tumors
A team of researchers from Jena presents a groundbreaking new method for the rapid, gentle and reliable detection of tumors with laser light.

The first laser radio transmitter
For the first time, researchers at Harvard School of Engineering have used a laser as a radio transmitter and receiver, paving the way for towards ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi and new types of hybrid electronic-photonic devices.

The random anti-laser
Scientists at TU Wien have found a way to build the 'opposite' of a laser -- a device that absorbs a specific light wave perfectly.

Laser 'drill' sets a new world record in laser-driven electron acceleration
Combining a first laser pulse to heat up and 'drill' through a plasma, and another to accelerate electrons to incredibly high energies in just tens of centimeters, scientists have nearly doubled the previous record for laser-driven particle acceleration at Berkeley Lab's BELLA Center.

Laser physics: Transformation through light
Laser physicists have taken snapshots of how C60 carbon molecules react to extremely short pulses of intense infrared light.

Laser-induced graphene gets tough, with help
Laser-induced graphene created at Rice University combines with many materials to make tough, conductive composites for wearable electronics, anti-icing, antimicrobial applications, sensors and water treatment.

Read More: Laser News and Laser Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.