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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Optical Materials with a Genome: Nanophotonics with DNA-Stabilized Silver Clusters

  • Author(s): Copp, Stacy Marla
  • Advisor(s): Gwinn, Elisabeth G
  • et al.

Fluorescent silver clusters with unique rod-like geometries are stabilized by DNA. The sizes and colors of these clusters, or AgN-DNA, are selected by DNA base sequence, which can tune peak emission from blue-green into the near-infrared. Combined with DNA nanostructures, AgN-DNA promise exciting applications in nanophotonics and sensing. Until recently, however, a lack of understanding of the mechanisms controlling AgN-DNA fluorescence has challenged such applications. This dissertation discusses progress toward understanding the role of DNA as a "genome" for silver clusters and toward using DNA to achieve atomic-scale precision of silver cluster size and nanometer-scale precision of silver cluster position on a DNA breadboard. We also investigate sensitivity of AgN-DNA to local solvent environment, with an eye toward applications in chemical and biochemical sensing.

Using robotic techniques to generate large data sets, we show that fluorescent silver clusters are templated by certain DNA base motifs that select "magic-sized" cluster cores of enhanced stabilities. The linear arrangement of bases on the phosphate backbone imposes a unique rod-like geometry on the clusters. Harnessing machine learning and bioinformatics techniques, we also demonstrate that sequences of DNA templates can be selected to stabilize silver clusters with desired optical properties, including high fluorescence intensity and specific fluorescence wavelengths, with much higher rates of success as compared to current strategies.

The discovered base motifs can be also used to design modular DNA host strands that enable individual silver clusters with atomically precise sizes to bind at specific programmed locations on a DNA nanostructure. We show that DNA-mediated nanoscale arrangement enables near-field coupling of distinct clusters, demonstrated by dual-color cluster assemblies exhibiting resonant energy transfer. These results demonstrate a new degree of control over the optical properties and relative positions of nanoparticles, selected almost solely by the sequence of DNA.

AgN-DNA are promising chemical and biochemical sensors due to the sensitivity of their fluorescence to local environment. However, the mechanisms behind many sensing schemes are not understood, and the nature of the excited state of the silver cluster itself remains unknown. To probe the fluorescence mechanisms of AgN-DNA, we investigate the behavior of purified solutions of these clusters in various solvents. We find that standard models for fluorophore solvatochromism, including the Lippert-Mataga model, do not describe AgN-DNA fluorescence because such models neglect specific interactions between the cluster and surrounding solvent molecules. Fluorescence colors are well-modeled by Mie-Gans theory, suggesting that the local dielectric environment of the cluster does play a role in fluorescence, although additional specific solvent interactions and cluster shape changes may also determine fluorescence color and intensity. These results suggest that AgN-DNA may be sensitive to changes in local dielectric environment on nanometer length scales and may also act as sensors for small molecules with affinity for DNA.

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