Modified Organosilica Core–Shell Nanoparticles for Stable pH Sensing in Biological Solutions

Continuous monitoring using nanoparticle-based sensors has been successfully employed in complex biological systems, yet the sensors still suffer from poor long-term stability partially because of the scaffold materials chosen to date. Organosilica core–shell nanoparticles containing a mixture of covalently incorporated pH-sensitive (shell) and pH-insensitive (core) fluorophores is presented as a continuous pH sensor for application in biological media. In contrast to previous studies focusing on similar materials, we sought to investigate the sensor characteristics (dynamic range, sensitivity, response time, stability) as a function of material properties. The ratio of the fluorescence intensities at specific wavelengths was found to be highly sensitive to pH over a physiologically relevant range (4.5–8) with a response time of <100 ms, significantly faster than that of previously reported response times using silica-based particles. Particles produced stable, pH-specific signals when stored at room temperature for more than 80 days. Finally, we demonstrated that the nanosensors successfully monitored the pH of a bacterial culture over 15 h and that pH changes in the skin of mouse cadavers could also be observed via in vivo fluorescence imaging following subcutaneous injection. The understanding gained from linking sensor characteristics and material properties will inform the next generation of optical nanosensors for continuous-monitoring applications.