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Optical transfection is the process of introducing nucleic acids into cells using light. Typically, a laser is focussed to a diffraction limited spot (~1 µm diameter) using a high numerical aperture microscope objective. The plasma membrane of a cell is then exposed to this highly focussed light for a small amount of time (typically tens of milliseconds to seconds), generating a transient pore on the membrane. The generation of a photopore allows exogenous plasmid DNA, RNA, organic fluorophores, or larger objects such as semiconductor quantum nanodots to enter the cell. In this technique, one cell at a time is treated, making it particularly useful for single cell analysis.

To put the above simply, cells do not usually allow certain types of substances into their interior space. Lasers can be used to burn a tiny hole on the cell surface, allowing those substances to enter. This is tremendously useful to biologists who are studying disease, as a common experimental requirement is to put things (such as DNA) into cells.

This technique was first demonstrated in 1984 by Tsukakoshi et al., who used a frequency tripled Nd:YAG to generate stable and transient transfection of normal rat kidney cells.[1] Since this time, the optical transfection of a host of mammalian cell types has been demonstrated using a variety of laser sources, including the 405 nm continuous wave (cw),[2] 488 nm cw,[3] or pulsed sources such as the 800 nm femtosecond pulsed Ti:Sapphire[4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13] or 1064 nm nanosecod pulsed Nd:YAG.[14][15]


The meaning of the term transfection has evolved.[16] The original meaning of transfection was "infection by transformation", i.e. introduction of DNA (or RNA) from a prokaryote-infecting virus or bacteriophage into cells, resulting in an infection. Because the term transformation had another sense in animal cell biology (a genetic change allowing long-term propagation in culture, or acquisition of properties typical of cancer cells), the term transfection acquired, for animal cells, its present meaning of a change in cell properties caused by introduction of DNA (or other nucleic acid species such as RNA or SiRNA).

Because of this strict definition of transfection, optical transfection also refers only to the introduction of nucleic acid species. The introduction of other impermeable compounds into a cell, such as organic fluorophores or semiconductor quantum nanodots is not strictly speaking "transfection," and is therefore referred to as "optical injection" or one of the other many terms now outlined.

The lack of a unified name for this technology makes reviewing the literature on the subject very difficult.[17] Optical injection has been described using over a dozen different names or phrases (see bulleted lists below). Some trends in the literature are clear. The first term of the technique is invariably a derivation of word laser, optical, or photo, and the second term is usually in reference to injection, transfection, poration, perforation or puncture. Like many cellular perturbations, when a single cell or group of cells is treated with a laser, three things can happen: the cell dies (overdose), the cell membrane is permeabilised, substances enter, and the cell recovers (therapeutic dose), or nothing happens (underdose). There have been suggestions in the literature to reserve the term optoinjection for when a therapeutic dose is delivered upon a single cell,[18][19][20] and the term optoporation for when a laser generated shockwave treats a cluster of many (10s to 100s) cells.[18][19][14][20] The first definition of optoinjection is uncontroversial. The definition of optoporation, however, has failed to be adopted, with a similar number of references using the term to denote the dosing of single cells[3][5][15][21] as those using the term to denote the simultaneous dosing of clusters of many cells [18][19][14][20]

As the field stands, it is the opinion of the authors of a review article on the subject[17] that the term optoinjection always be included as a keyword in future publications, regardless of their own naming preferences.

Terms agreed by consensus

Optoinjection (or any derivations of laser injection, optical injection, photoinjection): The transfer of any membrane impermeable substance into a cell using light. A general term that also encompasses optical transfection.
Optical transfection (or any derivations of laser transfection, optotransfection, phototransfection): A specific type of optical transfection - the transfer of nucleic acids into a cell using light for the purposes of eliciting protein translation from those acids. To be in line with the current definition of transfection in the biological community, non-nucleic acids (such as fluorophores) cannot, by definition, be optically transfected (only optically injected).
Photoporation (or any derivations of [laser-] or [optical-] or [opto-] or [photo-] AND [ poration] or [-permeabilisation] or [-puncture] or [-perforation]): The generation of a transient hole or holes on the plasma membrane (or cell wall) of a cell usually for the purpose of optical injection. See possible exception: Optoporation
-surgery (such as cell nanosurgery, laser nanosurgery, laser surgery): A general term that incorporates all of the above definitions, but also includes the concepts of the ablation or optical manipulation of cell material for other purposes besides pore generation. Examples include selective cell ablation to purify cell populations, chromosome dissection, cytoskeleton disruption, organelle ablation, axotomy,[22] or the optical tweezing or isolation of intracellular material.

Terms under deliberation

Optoporation: Has been suggested to mean the dosing of a cluster of cells with a shockwave mediated mechanism, which usually results in a doughnut shaped therapeutic zone.[18][19][14][20] On the contrary, has also been synonymously used with the term photoporation.[3][5][15][21]
Laserfection: Has been suggested to mean the dosing of a cluster of cells with a circularly shaped therapeutic zone. Term reserved for Cyntellect’s laser-enabled analysis and processing (LEAP) system.
Light-induced convective transmembrane transport: A newly coined term for optoinjection.[23]

Some of the above was reproduced with permission from.[17]

A typical optical transfection protocol is as follows:[11] 1) Build an optical tweezers system with a high NA objective 2) Culture cells to 50-60% confluency 3) Expose cells to at least 10 µg/ml of plasmid DNA 4) Dose the plasma membrane of each cell with 10-40 ms of focussed laser, at a power of <100 mW at focus 5) Observe transient transfection 24-96h later 6) Add selective medium if the generation of stable colonies is desired
See also

Cationic liposome
Magnet assisted transfection


Tsukakoshi, M.; Kurata, S.; Nomiya, Y.; Ikawa, Y.; Kasuya, T. (1984). "A novel method of DNA transfection by laser microbeam cell surgery". Applied Physics B Photophysics and Laser Chemistry. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. 35 (3): 135–140. Bibcode:1984ApPhB..35..135T. doi:10.1007/bf00697702. ISSN 0721-7269. S2CID 123250337.
Paterson, L.; Agate, B.; Comrie, M.; Ferguson, R.; Lake, T. K.; et al. (2005). "Photoporation and cell transfection using a violet diode laser". Optics Express. The Optical Society. 13 (2): 595–600. Bibcode:2005OExpr..13..595P. doi:10.1364/opex.13.000595. ISSN 1094-4087. PMID 19488389.
Palumbo, Giuseppe; Caruso, Matilde; Crescenzi, Elvira; Tecce, Mario F.; Roberti, Giuseppe; Colasanti, Alberto (1996). "Targeted gene transfer in eucaryotic cells by dye-assisted laser optoporation". Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology. Elsevier BV. 36 (1): 41–46. doi:10.1016/s1011-1344(96)07335-6. ISSN 1011-1344. PMID 8988610.
Tsampoula, X.; Taguchi, K.; Čižmár, T.; Garces-Chavez, V; Ma, N.; et al. (2008-10-10). "Fibre based cellular transfection". Optics Express. The Optical Society. 16 (21): 17007–13. Bibcode:2008OExpr..1617007T. doi:10.1364/oe.16.017007. ISSN 1094-4087. PMID 18852810.
Uchugonova, Aisada; König, Karsten; Bueckle, Rainer; Isemann, Andreas; Tempea, Gabriel (2008-06-11). "Targeted transfection of stem cells with sub-20 femtosecond laser pulses". Optics Express. The Optical Society. 16 (13): 9357–64. Bibcode:2008OExpr..16.9357U. doi:10.1364/oe.16.009357. ISSN 1094-4087. PMID 18575499.
Brown, C. T. A.; Stevenson, D. J.; Tsampoula, X.; McDougall, C.; Lagatsky, A. A.; et al. (2008). "Enhanced operation of femtosecond lasers and applications in cell transfection". Journal of Biophotonics. Wiley. 1 (3): 183–199. doi:10.1002/jbio.200810011. ISSN 1864-063X. PMID 19412968.
Baumgart, J.; Bintig, W.; Ngezahayo, A.; Willenbrock, S.; Murua Escobar, H.; Ertmer, W.; Lubatschowski, H.; Heisterkamp, A. (2008). "Quantified femtosecond laser based opto-perforation of living GFSHR-17 and MTH53 a cells". Optics Express. The Optical Society. 16 (5): 3021–31. Bibcode:2008OExpr..16.3021B. doi:10.1364/oe.16.003021. ISSN 1094-4087. PMID 18542388.
Lei, Ming; Xu, Hanpeng; Yang, Hao; Yao, Baoli (2008). "Femtosecond laser-assisted microinjection into living neurons". Journal of Neuroscience Methods. Elsevier BV. 174 (2): 215–218. doi:10.1016/j.jneumeth.2008.07.006. ISSN 0165-0270. PMID 18687359. S2CID 10242427.
Tsampoula, X.; Garcés-Chávez, V.; Comrie, M.; Stevenson, D. J.; Agate, B.; Brown, C. T. A.; Gunn-Moore, F.; Dholakia, K. (2007-07-30). "Femtosecond cellular transfection using a nondiffracting light beam". Applied Physics Letters. AIP Publishing. 91 (5): 053902–053903. Bibcode:2007ApPhL..91e3902T. doi:10.1063/1.2766835. ISSN 0003-6951.
Peng, Cheng; Palazzo, Robert E.; Wilke, Ingrid (2007-04-03). "Laser intensity dependence of femtosecond near-infrared optoinjection". Physical Review E. American Physical Society (APS). 75 (4): 041903. Bibcode:2007PhRvE..75d1903P. doi:10.1103/physreve.75.041903. ISSN 1539-3755. PMID 17500917.
Stevenson, D.; Agate, B.; Tsampoula, X.; Fischer, P.; Brown, C. T. A.; Sibbett, W.; Riches, A.; Gunn-Moore, F.; Dholakia, K. (2006). "Femtosecond optical transfection of cells:viability and efficiency". Optics Express. The Optical Society. 14 (16): 7125–33. Bibcode:2006OExpr..14.7125S. doi:10.1364/oe.14.007125. ISSN 1094-4087. PMID 19529083.
Barrett, Lindy E; Sul, Jai-Yoon; Takano, Hajime; Van Bockstaele, Elisabeth J; Haydon, Philip G; Eberwine, James H (2006-05-23). "Region-directed phototransfection reveals the functional significance of a dendritically synthesized transcription factor". Nature Methods. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. 3 (6): 455–460. doi:10.1038/nmeth885. ISSN 1548-7091. PMID 16721379. S2CID 10536176.
Tirlapur, Uday K.; König, Karsten (2002). "Targeted transfection by femtosecond laser". Nature. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. 418 (6895): 290–291. doi:10.1038/418290a. ISSN 0028-0836. PMID 12124612. S2CID 4370674.
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"Transfection" at Dorland's Medical Dictionary
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Sommer, Andrei P.; Zhu, Dan; Scharnweber, Tim (2010). "Laser modulated transmembrane convection: Implementation in cancer chemotherapy". Journal of Controlled Release. Elsevier BV. 148 (2): 131–134. doi:10.1016/j.jconrel.2010.10.010. ISSN 0168-3659. PMID 20934473.

External links

Research in optical transfection at the University of St Andrews
Transfection at the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
Overview of transfection methods in Nature Methods 2, 875 - 883 (2005)


Genetics: homologous recombination / mobile genetic elements
Primarily prokaryotic

Conjugation Transduction Transformation

Occurs in eukaryotes

Transfection Chromosomal crossover Gene conversion Fusion gene Horizontal gene transfer Sister chromatid exchange Transposon


Antigenic shift Reassortment Viral shift

List of laser articles

Physics Encyclopedia



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