Preparation of Stabilizer-Free Silver Nanoparticle-Coated Micropipettes as Surface-Enhanced Raman Scattering Substrate for Single Cell Detection
© Tan et al. 2015
Received: 6 June 2015
Accepted: 15 October 2015
Published: 26 October 2015
In this work, we established a convenient while reproduceable method for stabilizer-free silver nanoparticle (AgNP)-coated micropipettes by the combination of magnetron sputtering and surface coupling agent. The clear surfaces of the AgNPs are beneficial for absorbing biological or functional molecules on their surfaces. By optimizing the operating parameters, such as sputtering current and sputtering time, the tip of micropipettes coated with AgNPs exhibits excellent surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) performance. Finally, the Raman spectra of a single A549 lung adenocarcinoma cell are successfully acquired by these advanced SERS-active micropipettes.
It is important to achieving detailed and accurate information of pathological process on cellular level in life science research. Generally, cell detection is based on indirect methods to collect certain components in a large amount of cells [1–3]. However, such statistically average results from a large amount of cells usually obscure the real mechanism of the cellular pathological process . As a solution, detection of a single cell will help to comprehensively understand the individual difference and interaction [5, 6].
With the emerging of new technologies and instruments such as capillary electrophoresis, patch clamp, fluorescence microscope, and scanning tunneling microscope, the detection methods of a single cell have witnessed continuous development [7–10]. Raman spectroscopy, as a noninvasive optical detection method without ionizing radiation, has significant advantages like narrow spectrum peaks, interference immunity of water, hard quenching, and infrared light excitation compared with infrared spectroscopy and fluorescence spectroscopy, which is well suited to the research of biosystem in solution [11–14]. However, since the ratio between a Raman scattering event and the incident photons upon a molecule is extremely low (∼1 in 10 million), it is hard to obtain the Raman signals of a single cell. To conquer this problem, it is necessary to introduce nanostructured noble metals into the detection system. When the target moleculars absorbed on the surface of these metal nanostructures, the amplification of the Raman scattering signals would be improved to several orders. This phenomenon is also called surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) [15–17]. Some SERS-based methods have been exploited to enhance the Raman signals of single cells [18–20].
Micropipettes made of pulling glass capillary can be used in microinjection of a single cell . Also, it can be used to observe the electrophysiological activities of single cells in patch clamp experiments . Using such micropipettes with a metal nanostructures coating on its surface can serve as a kind of SERS-active microprobe for single cell detection. Since there is no need to introduce external markers when using this kind microprobe to conduct Raman detection, the information from the cell itself and its chemical response to the environment can be obtained accurately and conveniently [23–25]. Vitol et al.  utilized the electrostatic adsorption of citrate-stabilized gold nanoparticles on the surface of micropipette tips to fabricate SERS probes for detecting cell nucleus and cytoplasm.
In this paper, a facile while robust method is developed to obtain stabilizer-free silver nanoparticle (AgNP)-coated micro-SERS probes based on magnetron sputtering process [27, 28]. Furthermore, we investigated the effects of preparation process on the SERS performances of the probe tips. Finally, SERS detection for single cells was conducted using the as-prepared micropipettes.
Preparation of SERS Micropipettes
Initial micropipettes were prepared through standard wall borosilicate tubing (1.0 mm outer diameter, 0.5 mm inner diameter, Sutter Instruments, Novato, CA). The instrument used to pull the tubing is P-97 Flaming/Brown micropipette puller (Sutter Instruments, San Rafael, CA). Micropipettes with controllable taper length and tip size can be obtained by adjusting the parameters like pulling strength and speed (PULL and VEL). The pulled micropipettes were cleaned by acetone and deionized water, respectively, and dried for further use. In order to improve the deposition rate of the metal covering layer and enhance its conjugation with the substrate, 3-aminopropyltriethoxysilanes (APTS) were adopted as the coupling agent according to the silver. The metal covering layer on the surface of micropipettes was produced by magnetron sputtering method through Q150TS Sample Preparation System (Quorum Technologies Limited Company, Kent, UK), which can operate on numerous micropipettes at the same time and realize mass production. The sputtering target material used in the system is silver (51 mm diameter, 1 mm thickness, 99.99 % purity, China New Metal Materials Technology, Beijing, China).
Raman Spectra Acquisition of Single Cells Using SERS Micropipettes
Nile Bule A (NBA, China National Medicine Corporation Ltd., Shanghai, China) was used as Raman molecule for evaluating the SERS performances of different micropipettes. The concentration of NBA is 10−5 M and characteristic peak is 592 cm−1. The SERS micropipettes were immersed into the solution. The exciting source was focused on the sample through a ×50 telephoto objective lens to a spot size of approximately 2 μm. The Raman scattering was also collected by the same objective lens. The acquisition time for all spectra of micropipettes is 1 s, and the acquisition range is from 300 to 1000 cm−1.
Monolayer cultures of A549 cells, a human lung adenocarcinoma cell line, grew in the 35-mm culture dish with Dulbecco’s modified Eagle’s medium (DMEM, KeyGEN BioTECH Company, Nanjing, China). These cells were supplemented with 10 % fetal bovine serum (FBS, SiJiQing Biomaterial Company, Hangzhou, China), and the temperature was maintained at 37 °C in a humidified, 5 % carbon dioxide atmosphere. A SERS-active micropipette is stuck into the cell (Fig. 1b). The acquisition time for all spectra of cell is 10 s, and the acquisition range is from 400 to 2000 cm−1.
Results and Discussion
Raman Enhancement Influence of the Sputtering Parameters
In order to achieve great Raman enhancement, the plasmon resonance band of the SERS micropipettes should match the excitation wavelength . It is directly related to the geometrical morphology of metal nanostructures on the substrate surface  and can be controlled by adjusting the sputtering parameters including sputtering current and sputtering time [31, 32].
The influence of sputtering time on SERS enhancement was quite different from that of the sputtering current [27, 33, 34]. At the initial stage of sputtering, only a few of critical nuclei are formed on the base surface, and the size of metal particles is small. Here, the distance between particles is too large to enhance Raman signals by electromagnetic mechanism. When the distance between these metal particles reached the critical value to form electromagnetic enhancement, SERS signal appears and presents an increasing trend. When the metal nanostructure on the surface matched with the wavelength of the excitation light, the SERS enhancement achieves the peak value. By doing this, the surface of the substrate usually shows rough island-like membrane or network membrane structure. As the process of sputtering, continuous membrane started to form, and the roughness of substrate surface decreased, and the SERS enhancement would decrease gradually again (Fig. 2b).
Raman Enhancement Influence of the Tip Geometry
The above study and analysis were of vital importance in actual preparation of micropipettes. If micropipettes have better SERS enhancement, it would be quite helpful for obtaining weaker Raman signal at a single cell level. To achieve this goal, it is required to use different preparation parameters for micropipettes with different tip sizes. For this regard, we will fix the sputtering current and adjust the sputtering time to realize this goal.
The Influence of Coupling Agent
Experimental Result of Single Cell Detection
In summary, we demonstrated a robust method of stabilizer-free AgNP-coated micro-SERS probes by magnetron sputtering and surface coupling modification. Using these SERS-active micro-substrate, we successfully obtain rich Raman signals of single cells in situ. This mass-production method owns a simple process, fast speed, and good repeatability. By adjusting the preparation parameters, we can optimize the SERS enhancement on the micropipettes and improve its detection sensibility. In future work, we will address the application of these SERS micropipettes for cell microinjection and electrophysiological detection, which is expected to realize a multi-parameter detection of single cells in situ.
This work was supported by the National Basic Research Program of China (2011CB933503), the Special Project on Development of National Key Scientific Instruments Equipment of China (2011YQ03013403), Special Funds of the National Natural Science Foundation of China for Basic Research Projects of Scientific Instruments (61127002), National Natural Science Foundation of China (61179035), the National Natural Science Foundation of China for Key Project of International Cooperation (61420106012), and Collaborative Innovation Center of Suzhou Nano Science and Technology.
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