Highly photostable wide-dynamic-range pH sensitive semiconducting polymer dots enabled by dendronizing the near-IR emitters†
One constraint of semiconducting polymer dots (Pdots), especially those with near-IR emission, is their low effective emitter ratio (∼1.5 mole percent), which limits their pH sensing performance. The other critical issue of existing Pdot-based pH sensors is their poor photostability. To address these issues, we developed a series of Pdots by dendronizing the squaraine-based pH responsive near-IR emitter, which is covalently incorporated into the polyfluorene (PFO) backbone. The fluorescence self-quenching of the NIR squaraine emitter was effectively suppressed at a high emitter concentration of 5 mole percent. Through controlling the individually incomplete energy transfer from the amorphous PFO donor to the blue β-phase PFO and NIR squaraine emitter, we obtained a ratiometric pH sensor with simultaneously improved pH sensitivity, brightness, and photostability. The Pdots showed a fast and reversible pH response over the whole biological pH range of 4.7 to 8.5. Intracellular pH mapping was successfully demonstrated using this ultra-bright and photostable Pdot-based pH indicator.