Next to chromatography, spectroscopy or microscopy biosensors complete the available collection of tools to chemically analyse a complex sample. By definition, biosensors are compact analytical devices incorporating a biological or biologically derived sensing element intimately associated with a physicochemical transducer. The latter turns molecular recognition or biological response into a measurable, mostly electronic signal. Typical applications comprise pathogen detection, environmental monitoring, drug or toxicity screening as well as the analysis of clinical samples. This article gives a short overview about (1) general concepts of biosensor design, (2) biological components that are used for sensing, (3) the most important technical transducers and (4) some applications of molecular and cell‐based biosensors.

Key Concepts

  • A biosensor is a device that consists of (1) a biological element, which is used to specifically capture, convert or sense a target analyte and (2) a physicochemical transducer to convert the interaction with the analyte into a detectable signal.
  • The group of biological sensing elements comprises biomolecules like antibodies, enzymes, nucleic acids or living bacteria, archaeans or eukaryotic cells. Even cell aggregates, tissues or organs may serve for biorecognition and sensing.
  • Molecular biosensors detect target analytes either by capturing (antibodies, DNA, aptamers) or converting them (enzymes).
  • Cell‐based biosensors indicate the presence of the analyte by expression of reporter genes or an integrated, often generic (w)holistic response of cell physiology.
  • Electrochemical, optical, piezoelectric or calorimetric transducers are applied to quantify the interaction between analyte and sensing element.

Keywords: molecular recognition; whole‐cell biosensors; molecular biosensors; label‐free; label‐based; reporter gene; enzyme electrode; surface plasmon resonance; electric cell‐substrate impedance sensing

Figure 1. Functional elements of a biosensor.
Figure 2. Schematics of the most common transducers in molecular and whole‐cell biosensors. (a) Three electrode arrangements for amperometric or voltammetric detection (e.g. of enzymatic conversion). (b) Components of an ISFET (ion‐selective field‐effect transistor) to detect changes of the gate potential in potentiometric measurements. (c) Light addressable potentiometric sensor (LAPS) to measure potential changes with lateral resolution defined by the illumination pattern. (d) Impedance measurements provide the dielectric properties of molecular or cellular sensing elements and report on changes due to analyte encounter. (e) Piezoelectric bulk acoustic wave (BAW) resonator to monitor adsorption or desorption reactions at the solid–liquid interface. The transducer is generally referred to as the quartz crystal microbalance (QCM). (f) Device to monitor oxygen consumption (e.g. due to activity of a redox enzyme) by means of quenching of a polymer‐embedded fluorophore. (g) Surface plasmon resonance (SPR) provides access to the refractive index within 100–200 nm of the surface. Any adsorption to or desorption from the surfaces induces measurable refractive index changes so that SPR is considered as a mass‐sensitive transducer. (h) Resonance waveguide grating works like a wavelength‐dependent mirror. When polychromatic light hits the interface of an RWG substrate, the refractive index in the medium determines the wavelength of the reflected light. The device reads refractive index changes close to the surface like SPR.
Figure 3. (a) Direct electron transfer from the sensing element (enzyme) to the electrode. (b) Indirect (shuttled) electron transfer via a mediator system.
Figure 4. Schematic of Clark and Lyon's enzyme electrode that measures the concentration of glucose via the consumption of oxygen during its oxidation by GOx.


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Further Reading

Banerjee P and Bhunia AK (2009) Mammalian cell‐based biosensors for pathogens and toxins. Trends in Biotechnology 27 (3): 179–188.

Hall EAH (1991) Biosensors. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Turner APF, Karube I and Wilson GS (1987) Biosensors: Fundamentals and Applications. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wang P and Liu Q (2010) Cell‐Based Biosensors: Principles and Applications. Boston: Artech House.

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Hajek, Kathrin, Schmittlein, Carina, Oberleitner, Maximilian, Shin, Ik‐Soo, and Wegener, Joachim(Jul 2016) Biosensors. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0026401]