Remotely reporting the local environment within hydrogels using inexpensive laboratory techniques has excellent potential to improve our understanding of the nanometer-scale changes that cause macroscopic swelling or deswelling. Whilst photoluminescence (PL) spectroscopy is a popular method for such studies this approach commonly requires bespoke and time-consuming synthesis to attach fluorophores which may leave toxic residues. A promising and more versatile alternative is to use a pre-formed nanogel probe that contains a donor/acceptor pair and then “dope” that into the gel during gel assembly. Here, we introduce green-emitting methacrylic acid-based nanogel probe particles and use them to report the local environment within four different gels as well as stem cells. As the swelling of the nanogel probe changes within the gels the non-radiative energy transfer efficiency is strongly altered. This efficiency change is sensitively reported using the PL ratiometric intensity from the donor and acceptor. We demonstrate that our new nanoprobes can reversibly report gel swelling changes due to five different environmental stimuli. The latter are divalent cations, gel degradation, pH changes, temperature changes and tensile strain. In the latter case, the nanoprobe rendered a nanocomposite gel mechanochromic. The results not only provide new structural insights for hierarchical natural and synthetic gels, but also demonstrate that our new green-fluorescing nanoprobes provide a viable alternative to custom fluorophore labelling for reporting the internal gel environment and its changes.
M. Zhu, D. Lu, S. Wu, Q. Lian, W. Wang, A. Lyon, W. Wang, P. Bartolo and B. R. Saunders, Nanoscale, 2019, DOI: 10.1039/C9NR00989B.
Royal Society of Chemistry
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