Designing Biological Micro-Sensors with Chiral Nematic Liquid Crystal Droplets

Research output: Working paperAcademic


Biosensing using liquid crystals has a tremendous potential by coupling the high degree of sensitivity of their alignment to their surroundings with clear optical feedback. Many existing set-ups use birefringence of nematic liquid crystals, which severely limits straightforward and frugal implementation into a sensing platform due to the sophisticated optical set-ups required. In this work, we instead utilize chiral nematic liquid crystal micro-droplets, which show strongly reflected structural colour, as sensing platforms for surface active agents. We systematically quantify the optical response of closely related biological amphiphiles and find unique optical signatures for each species. We detect signatures across a wide range of concentrations (from μM to mM), with fast response times (from seconds to minutes). The striking optical response is a function of the adsorption of surfactants in a non-homogeneous manner and the topology of the liquid crystal orientation at the interface requiring a scattering, multidomain structure, which we observe to be different between molecules. We show lab-on-a-chip capability of our method by drying droplets in high-density two-dimensional arrays and simply hydrating the chip to detect dissolved analytes. Finally, we show proof-of-principle in vivo biosensing in the intestinal tracts of live zebrafish larvae, demonstrating CLC droplets show a clear and differential optical response between healthy and inflamed tissues. Our unique approach has great potential in developing on-site detection platforms and detecting biological amphiphiles in living organisms.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 26 Oct 2021


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