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Quantum dots get a second chance to shine

A new look at colorful semiconductor particles for visualizing living cells

By
4:29pm, June 29, 2015
tiny semiconductor particles

DAZZLING DOTS  Tiny semiconductor particles called quantum dots light up mouse intestines in this microscope image. Red and green represent proteins illuminated by fluorescing quantum dots. Cell nuclei are stained blue with a traditional dye not involving quantum dots.

Warren Chan helped invent a research field and then watched it nearly die.

The chemist and biomedical engineer at the University of Toronto specializes in quantum dots, tiny semiconductor particles that glow in a rainbow of colors when zapped with a laser. Fifteen years ago, quantum dots were all the rage. Scientists dreamed of the wild things they could do with them (SN: 6/3/06, p. 344).

Perhaps quantum dots could glow in a futuristic, superbright television screen. Or maybe doctors could hook them to a cancer-fighting drug to watch the medicine spread through the body and attack the tumor. In 1998, Chan and Shuming Nie, then at Indiana University in Bloomington, were among the first to describe how quantum dots could light up the inner workings of living cells.

In the years since, the television screens became reality: Quantum

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