Scully's research group developed a new approach to detect biochemical molecules using an adapted form of Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Spectroscopy (CARS) based on enhancing the ground-state molecular coherence, which increases the signal by many orders of magnitude to allow real-time detection of trace amounts of complex molecules. Researchers now can look at the backward-scattered CARS signal to detect chemicals and endospores in real-time with the goal of improving chemical sensing and biomedical imaging.

In the above image, green and red combine together to make purple light in the presence of a trace molecule; no purple indicates that the specific molecule to be detected is not present. (Photo by Michael Kellett.)


A three-year, $10.8 million investment by the Texas A&M University System is set to provide a major boost to multidisciplinary quantum biophotonics research across the Texas A&M University campus.

Biophotonics combines biology and photonics, which is the study of quantum units of light called photons. Researchers will draw on sophisticated laser technology developed by the Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering (IQSE) and apply it to an eclectic range of research, from human and crop health to anthrax and cancer detection.

"Our group is world-renowned," said IQSE director and Texas A&M quantum physicist Marlan Scully. "But we don't yet have world-class facilities. We're coming along nicely, but we really needed a shot in the arm, and Chancellor John Sharp has given us that. We're going to be bringing in world-renowned scientists and connecting them with these global problems."

The money will allow the College Station campus to invest in cutting-edge laser-based technology and equipment, such as building a Raman spectrometer for cancer detection. In addition, the funding is helping to recruit internationally renowned and interdisciplinary faculty members. Scientists who already have signed on include Roy Glauber, a Harvard University professor who received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Wolfgang Schleich, a University of Ulm theoretical physicist whose accolades include membership in the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Both researchers are 2013-14 Fellows with the Texas A&M Institute for Advanced Study (TIAS), which hosts research superstars for short stays in Aggieland.

Scully, a distinguished professor since 1996 and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, said the research conducted at the IQSE is a prime example of Texas A&M's growing "One Health" movement, which strives for an interdisciplinary approach across departments and colleges to uniting the health of humans, animals, plants and the environment. The institute fuses faculty members from several Texas A&M units and colleges, including science, engineering, liberal arts, agriculture, and veterinary medicine & biomedical sciences.

The funding for this effort came from the Chancellor's Research Initiative (CRI), which provides one-time funds to Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University to recruit and hire faculty members with a track record of developing large federally funded research programs. The $33 million in annual funds for the CRI, which comes from the Available University Fund, is distributed in a process that includes input from Texas A&M's deans, Provost Karan Watson, President R. Bowen Loftin and A&M System Chancellor John Sharp.

"As we continue to be challenged with doing more with less, it is important for us to find ways to attract world-class researchers without overtaxing our already lean budgets," Sharp said in 2012, when announcing his plan to ask the Board of Regents to create the fund to attract star scientists. "The CRI seeks to find outstanding researchers who can not only produce amazing work, but also bring in some much-needed funding to support that work."

Some, but far from all, of the biophotonics research goals for the IQSE award include:

  • Increase the speed and reliability of cancer diagnosis techniques. Raman spectroscopy uses lasers to excite the tumor and create scattered light that carries molecular information, a technique that has shown promise in cancer detection and determining tumor boundaries. This technology will be extended to a new technique created at Texas A&M to increase the sensitivity of Raman signals.

  • Develop a new technology that will revolutionize biological and chemical sensing -- a process long dominated by dogs as the best sensors of explosives and drugs. Texas A&M is creating a prototype device capable of unprecedented, one-part-per-trillion sensitivity for many chemicals under normal atmospheric conditions that could have major implications for homeland security, agriculture, healthcare and environmental sensing.

  • Use laser technology developed at Texas A&M to detect crop infection. Cotton, for instance, is affected by several diseases characterized by airborne spores that could be identified spectroscopically by scanning the air directly above crops to pinpoint the infected areas. This technology had previously been used at the IQSE to monitor the atmosphere for traces of gases and pathogens, with broad application in environmental science and national security.

  • Build on technology developed at Texas A&M to detect anthrax in the air and in the mail. A team at Texas A&M was the first and only group to detect anthrax in real time. Now, IQSE researchers are proposing to use a technique called Coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy (CARS) to make the process of detecting endospores easier and more efficient. In addition to anthrax detection, the researchers expect the work to find many applications in chemical sensing and biomedical imaging.

To learn more about the Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering and related research, visit http://iqse.tamu.edu/.

For additional background on the Chancellor's Research Initiative, visit http://news.tamus.edu/2012/08/01/.

For more information about the Texas A&M Institute for Advanced Study, visit http://tias.tamu.edu/.

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Contact: Vimal Patel, (979) 845-7246 or vpatel@science.tamu.edu or Marlan Scully, (979) 862-2333 or scully@tamu.edu

Patel Vimal

  • Dr. Marlan O. Scully

    Thanks to a three-year, $10.8 million Chancellor's Research Initative (CRI) award, researchers across the Texas A&M University campus will be able to draw on sophisticated laser technology developed by world-renowned quantum optics and laser physics pioneer Marlan Scully and the Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering (IQSE) in order to apply it to an eclectic range of research, from human and crop health to anthrax and cancer detection.

  • CARS Applied

    Figure 1. (a) Anthrax infections in animals and humans via Bacillus anthracis spores. (b) Configuration of laser beams in Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Scattering (CARS) spectroscopy. Inset shows a vibrating molecule emitting signals.

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