Field-resolved infrared spectroscopy of biological systems
in: Nature (2020)
The proper functioning of living systems and physiological phenotypes depends on molecular composition. Yet simultaneous quantitative detection of a wide variety of molecules remains a challenge1–8. Here we show how broadband optical coherence opens up opportunities for fingerprinting complex molecular ensembles in their natural environment. Vibrationally excited molecules emit a coherent electric field following few-cycle infrared laser excitation9–12, and this field is specific to the sample’s molecular composition. Employing electro-optic sampling10,12–15, we directly measure this global molecular fingerprint down to field strengths 107 times weaker than that of the excitation. This enables transillumination of intact living systems with thicknesses of the order of 0.1 millimetres, permitting broadband infrared spectroscopic probing of human cells and plant leaves. In a proof-of-concept analysis of human blood serum, temporal isolation of the infrared electric-field fingerprint from its excitation along with its sampling with attosecond timing precision results in detection sensitivity of submicrograms per millilitre of blood serum and a detectable dynamic range of molecular concentration exceeding 105. This technique promises improved molecular sensitivity and molecular coverage for probing complex, real-world biological and medical settings.