Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy of microorganisms: limitations and applicability on the single-cell level†
Detection and characterization of microorganisms is essential for both clinical diagnostics and environmental studies. An emerging technique to analyse microbes at single-cell resolution is surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (surface-enhanced Raman scattering: SERS). Optimised SERS procedures enable fast analytical read-outs with specific molecular information, providing insight into the chemical composition of microbiological samples. Knowledge about the origin of microbial SERS signals and parameter(s) affecting their occurrence, intensity and/or reproducibility is crucial for reliable SERS-based analyses. In this work, we explore the feasibility and limitations of the SERS approach for characterizing microbial cells and investigate the applicability of SERS for single-cell sorting as well as for three-dimensional visualization of microbial communities. Analyses of six different microbial species (an archaeon, two Gram-positive bacteria, three Gram-negative bacteria) showed that for several of these organisms distinct features in their SERS spectra were lacking. As additional confounding factor, the physiological conditions of the cells (as influenced by e.g., storage conditions or deuterium-labelling) were systematically addressed, for which we conclude that the respective SERS signal at the single-cell level is strongly influenced by the metabolic activity of the analysed cells. While this finding complicates the interpretation of SERS data, it may on the other hand enable probing of the metabolic state of individual cells within microbial populations of interest.