Zwitterion and Oligo(ethylene glycol) Synergy Minimizes Nonspecific Binding of Compact Quantum Dots

Zhiyuan Han, Suresh Sarkar, Andrew M. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Quantum dots (QDs) are a class of fluorescent nanocrystals in development as labels for molecular imaging in cells and tissues. Recently, coatings for quantum dots based on multidentate polymers have improved labeling performance in a range of bioanalytical applications, primarily due to reduced probe hydrodynamic size. Now, an ongoing challenge is to eliminate nonspecific binding between these small probes and cellular components that mask specifically labeled molecules. Here, we describe insights into controlling and minimizing intermolecular interactions governing nonspecific binding using multidentate polymers with tunable hydrophilic functional groups that are cationic, anionic, zwitterionic (ZW), or nonionic (oligoethylene glycol; OEG). By fixing surface-binding groups and polymer length, coated colloids have similar sizes but diverse physicochemical properties. We measure binding to globular proteins, fixed cells, and living cells and observe a substantial improvement in nonspecific binding resistance when surfaces are functionalized with a combination of ZW and OEG. The independent underlying effects of counterion adsorption and flexibility appear to synergistically resist adsorption when combined, particularly for fixed cells enriched in both charged and hydrophobic moieties. We further show that ZW-OEG QDs are stable under diverse conditions and can be self-assembled with antibodies to specifically label surface antigens on living cells and cytoplasmic proteins in fixed cells. This surface engineering strategy can be adopted across the diverse range of colloidal materials currently in use and in development for biomedical applications to optimize their molecular labeling specificity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3227-3241
Number of pages15
JournalACS Nano
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 24 2020


  • amino acid
  • colloid
  • fluorescence
  • molecular imaging
  • multidentate
  • nanoparticle
  • stability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Materials Science(all)
  • Engineering(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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