Leadership Seminar: Perspective on Optical Biosensors: Evolutionary and Quantum Leaps

Date(s) - 04/04/2022
3:00 pm - 4:00 pm

Virtual via Zoom & projected in Communicore, C1-004

Frances S. Ligler, D.Phil., D.Sc., Professor and Eppright Chair in Biomedical Engineering, Texas A&M University

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Perspective on Optical Biosensors: Evolutionary and Quantum Leaps

The definition of an optical biosensor includes a recognition molecule or molecular complex that generates an optical signal and a portable optoelectronic device that measures the signal. Conventionally, the recognition molecule is immobilized on an optically active surface that generates a signal upon target binding.  That signal can be a change in color, fluorescence, optical density, frequency or other optical parameter.  The explosion of nanoparticles and dyes for intracellular use confused the definition of what constitutes a biosensor.  Many investigators referred to these sensing materials, especially those in nanoparticle form, as biosensors–even when the signal had to be evaluated using a laboratory microscope.  The requirement for a portable system blurred. Then cell phone cameras and CMOS imagers replaced the big microscopes, and the readout system once again became portable.

Looking at these changes from the perspective of decades of development of optical biosensors is intriguing.  Instead of a requirement to add a sample to a biosensor, we can now add our recognition molecules to the sample and detect spectral changes using optics with imaging or spectrometry.  Most importantly, the detector can be both portable and remote from the recognition molecules and without any direct contact with the sample.

This geometric paradigm opens up an entire new range of measurements for optical biosensors.  For the first time, we can envision continuous, long-term measurements in living cells, three-dimensional tissues, and even intact animals. We no longer need to extract, fix or terminate living organisms in order to perform functional measurements.  Furthermore, imaging capabilities suggest that we can analyzed larger areas, such as thousands of cells in complex arrangements, simultaneously, without generating “average values”.


Frances S. Ligler is the Ross Lampe Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering at North Carolina State University and School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an elected member, past chair of the Bioengineering Section, and former Councillor of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. Prior to joining NC State and UNC Chapel Hill in 2013, she was at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) for 28 years, during the last 18 of which she was the U.S. Navy Senior Scientist for Biosensors and Biomaterials. She earned a B.S. from Furman University and both a D.Phil. and a D.Sc. from Oxford University. Currently working in the fields of biosensors, tissue-on-chip, and microfluidics, she has also performed research in biochemistry, immunology, and analytical chemistry. She has over 400 full-length publications and patents, which have led to eleven commercial biosensor products and have been cited over 20000 times with H=83 (Google Scholar). Sge was elected an SPIE Fellow in 2000, a Fellow of AIMBE in 2011, a Fellow of AAAS in 2013, a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2016, and an Honorary Member of the Hellenic Society for Nanotechnology in Health Sciences in 2017. In 2003, she was awarded the Homeland Security Award (Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Field) by the Christopher Columbus Foundation and the Presidential Rank of Distinguished Senior Professional by President Bush. In 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Rank of Meritorious Senior Professional by President Obama. In 2014 and 2018, she was awarded honorary doctorates from the Agricultural University of Athens, Greece and Furman University, respectively. She is a 2017 inductee of the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame, honored for her invention of portable optical biosensors. In 2020, she received the Simon Ramo Founders Award from the National Academy of Engineering “For the invention and development of portable optical biosensors, service to the nation and profession, and educating the next, more diverse generation of engineers.”