Capping of Mn-Doped ZnS Quantum Dots with DHLA for Their Stabilization in Aqueous Media: Determination of the Nanoparticle Number Concentration and Surface Ligand Density

Colloidal Mn<sup>2+</sup>-doped ZnS quantum dots (QDs) were synthesized, surface modified, and thoroughly characterized using a pool of complementary techniques. Cap exchange of the native l-cysteine coating of the QDs with dihydrolipoic acid (DHLA) ligands is proposed as a strategy to produce nanocrystals with a strong phosphorescent-type emission and improved aqueous stability. Moreover, such a stable DHLA coating can facilitate further bioconjugation of these QDs to biomolecules using established reagents such as cross-linker molecules. First, a structural and morphological characterization of the l-cysteine QD core was performed by resorting to complementary techniques, including X-ray powder diffraction (XRD) and microscopy tools. XRD patterns provided information about the local structure of ions within the nanocrystal structure and the number of metal atoms constituting the core of a QD. The judicious combination of the data obtained from these complementary characterization tools with the analysis of the QDs using inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) allowed us to assess the number concentration of nanoparticles in an aqueous sample, a key parameter when such materials are going to be used in bioanalytical or toxicological studies. Asymmetric flow field-flow fractionation (AF4) coupled online to ICP-MS detection proved to be an invaluable tool to compute the number of DHLA molecules attached to the surface of a single QD, a key feature that is difficult to estimate in nanoparticles and that critically affects the behavior of nanoparticles when entering the biological media (e.g., cellular uptake, biodistribution, or protein corona formation). This hybrid technique also allowed us to demonstrate that the elemental composition of the nanoparticle core remains unaffected after the ligand exchange process. Finally, the photostability and robustness of the DHLA-capped QDs, critical parameters for bioanalytical applications, were assessed by molecular luminescence spectroscopy.