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Scientists can now put nanoscale tattoos onto individual cells inside your body

In an impressive scientific breakthrough that draws us nearer to monitoring the health of individual cells, engineers at Johns Hopkins University have developed nanoscale tattoos.

These microscopic structures consist of dots and wires designed to adhere to live cells, flexing and conforming to the cells’ wet and fluid outer structure.

This pioneering technology ushers in a new era of possibilities. Most important on the list is the placement of optical elements or electronics directly on live cells, marking a significant advancement in biosensor technologies.

Implications of nanoscale tattoos

Professor David Gracias, who led the development, elucidates the vision and potential implications of this achievement.

“If you imagine where this is all going in the future, we would like to have sensors to remotely monitor and control the state of individual cells and the environment surrounding those cells in real time,” Gracias stated.

He went on to emphasize the potential medical applications. Gracias added, “If we had technologies to track the health of isolated cells, we could maybe diagnose and treat diseases much earlier and not wait until the entire organ is damaged.”

Biosensor technology breakthrough

The technology’s details, now published in Nano Letters, reveal the comprehensive process behind the creation of these nanoscale tattoos. They function as a bridge between living cells or tissues and conventional sensors and electronic materials, akin to barcodes or QR codes.

Gracias, known for his work on nontoxic and noninvasive biosensor technologies, explained the extraordinary nature of the invention. He said, “We’re talking about putting something like an electronic tattoo on a living object tens of times smaller than the head of a pin. It’s the first step towards attaching sensors and electronics on live cells.”

How to make a nanoscale tattoos

The engineers crafted these tattoos from gold, employing arrays to ensure no signal loss or distortion in electronic wiring. The tattoos were attached to human fibroblasts, cells that create and sustain human tissue.

They then treated the arrays with molecular glues, using an alginate hydrogel film to transfer them onto the cells. Once the gold adhered to the cell, the gel-like laminate dissolved, and the molecular glue bonded to the extracellular matrix, a film secreted by the cells.

The team demonstrated the robustness of these structures by ensuring that they stuck to soft cells for a full 16 hours, even as the cells moved. This builds upon previous research that utilized hydrogels to adhere nanotechnology to human skin and animal organs.

Biosensor technology at the cellular level

What makes Gracias’ work standout is addressing the age-old challenge of integrating optical sensors and electronics with biological matter at the single-cell level.

“We’ve shown we can attach complex nanopatterns to living cells, while ensuring that the cell doesn’t die,” Gracias elaborated. He emphasized the significance of this, saying, “It’s a very important result that the cells can live and move with the tattoos because there’s often a significant incompatibility between living cells and the methods engineers use to fabricate electronics.”

The deliberate arrangement of the dots and wires in specific patterns on these nanoscale tattoos is essential for tracking bioinformation. This design must be precise, mirroring the way sensors and wiring are aligned in electronic chips. “This is an array with specific spacing,” Gracias explained, “not a haphazard bunch of dots.”

As the team looks to the future, they are planning experiments to attach more complex nanocircuits that can endure for more extended periods and are keen to experiment with different cell types.

The success of this innovative technology opens a new frontier in healthcare. It offers a glimpse into the future where individual cell monitoring may revolutionize early disease diagnosis and treatment.

More about biosensor technology

Biosensor technology refers to the integration of a biological element with a physicochemical detector to detect the presence of various substances and biological reactions.

Widely used in clinical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and food safety, biosensors provide quantitative and qualitative information regarding the substances they detect.


Biological Element

The biological element is the core of the biosensor, responsible for recognizing the target substance. It may consist of enzymes, antibodies, nucleic acids, cells, or tissues.


The transducer converts the interaction between the biological element and the analyte into a measurable signal. Common transducer types include optical, electrochemical, calorimetric, and piezoelectric.

Signal Processing System

The signal processing system amplifies, processes, and displays the signal, allowing for interpretation. It often includes computers or microprocessors.

Types of Biosensors

Enzyme-Based Biosensors

Enzyme-based biosensors utilize enzymes as the biological element to recognize specific substrates, converting them into products. They find application in monitoring glucose levels, lactose detection, and more.


Immunosensors employ antibodies to detect antigens. They play a vital role in diagnosing diseases, identifying pathogens, and assessing allergens.

DNA Biosensors

DNA biosensors rely on nucleic acid interactions to detect specific DNA or RNA sequences. They assist in genetic screening, forensic analysis, and detecting infectious diseases.


Medical Diagnostics

Biosensors are indispensable in healthcare. They help in early detection and monitoring of diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disorders, and cancer. How, with nanoscale tattoos, medical diagnostics are taking a giant leap into the future.

Environmental Monitoring

In environmental contexts, biosensors detect pollutants, toxins, and other harmful substances, providing vital data for pollution control and environmental protection.

Food and Beverage Industry

Biosensors aid in detecting pathogens, allergens, and contaminants in food products, ensuring food safety and quality control.


In the biotechnology field, biosensors contribute to research, development, and production processes, monitoring parameters like pH, oxygen levels, and nutrient concentrations.

Advantages and Limitations


Biosensors offer quick, sensitive, and specific detection. They are often portable, user-friendly, and can perform continuous monitoring.


Challenges include maintaining the stability of biological elements, high costs of development, potential cross-reactivity, and difficulty in miniaturization for some applications.

Recent Developments

In recent years, innovations such as nanoscale tattoos for individual cell health monitoring and the integration of AI with biosensors have expanded the potential applications and improved sensitivity and specificity.

Biosensor technology is a rapidly advancing field that continues to push the boundaries of medical diagnostics, environmental protection, and industrial process control.

With ongoing research and technological innovation, biosensors are poised to become an even more integral part of everyday life, enhancing health, safety, and efficiency.

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