New technique moves researchers closer to new range of GaN biosensors

December 18, 2014 by Matt Shipman, North Carolina State University

Researchers from North Carolina State University have found a way of binding peptides to the surface of gallium nitride (GaN) in a way that keeps the peptides stable even when exposed to water and radiation. The discovery moves researchers one step closer to developing a new range of biosensors for use in medical and biological research applications.

GaN is a biocompatible material that fluoresces, or lights up, when exposed to radiation. Researchers are interested in taking advantage of this characteristic to make biosensors that can sense specific molecules, or "analytes," in a biological environment.

To make a GaN biosensor, the GaN is coated with peptides – chains of amino acids that are chemically bound to the surface of the material. These peptides would respond to the presence of specific analytes by binding with the molecules.

The idea is that, when exposed to radiation, the intensity of the light emitted by the GaN would change, depending on the number of analytes bound to the peptides on the surface. This would allow researchers and clinicians to monitor the presence of different molecules in a biological system. But it's not quite that simple.

"A key challenge in developing GaN biosensors has been finding a technique to bind the peptides to the GaN surface in a way that keeps the peptides stable when exposed to aqueous environments – like a cell – and to radiation," says Dr. Albena Ivanisevic, senior author of a paper on the work and an associate professor of science and engineering at NC State. "Now we have done that."

"We used a two-step process to bind the peptides," explains Nora Berg, a Ph.D. student at NC State and lead author of the paper. "First we used a combination of phosphoric and phosphonic acids to etch the GaN and create a stable 'cap' on the surface. We were then able to attach the relevant peptides to the phosphonic acids in the cap."

To determine the stability of the peptides, the researchers placed the coated GaN in an aqueous solution and then placed the solution in a "phantom material" that mimics animal tissue. The GaN, solution and phantom material were then exposed to high levels of radiation, beyond what would be expected in a clinical setting. The material was then evaluated to see if there was any degradation of the peptides or of the GaN itself.

"The peptides remained on the surface," Berg says. "The caused an oxide layer to form on the but there is no indication that this would affect the functionality of the ."

"Now that we've shown that this approach allows us to create functional, stable peptide coatings on this material, we're moving forward to develop a particle configuration – which would be injectable," Ivanisevic says. "This will open the door to in vitro testing of the material's sensing capabilities."

Explore further: Research finds gallium nitride is non-toxic, biocompatible - holds promise for implants

More information: "Surface Characterization of Gallium Nitride Modified with Peptides before and after Exposure to Ionizing Radiation in Solution" Langmuir, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/la5040245

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