Non-invasive temperature sensing is necessary to analyze biological processes occurring in the human body, including cellular enzyme activity, protein expression, and ion regulation. To probe temperature-sensitive processes at the nanoscale, novel luminescence nanothermometers are developed based on graphene quantum dots (GQDs) synthesized via top-down (RGQDs) and bottom-up (N-GQDs) approaches from reduced graphene oxide and glucosamine precursors, respectively. Because of their small 3–6 nm size, non-invasive optical sensitivity to temperature change, and high biocompatibility, GQDs enable biologically safe sub-cellular resolution sensing. Both GQD types exhibit temperature-sensitive yet photostable fluorescence in the visible and near-infrared for RGQDs, utilized as a sensing mechanism in this work. Distinctive linear and reversible fluorescence quenching by up to 19.3% is observed for the visible and near-infrared GQD emission in aqueous suspension from 25 °C to 49 °C. A more pronounced trend is observed with GQD nanothermometers internalized into the cytoplasm of HeLa cells as they are tested in vitro from 25 °C to 45 °C with over 40% quenching response. Our findings suggest that the temperature-dependent fluorescence quenching of bottom-up and top-down-synthesized GQDs studied in this work can serve as non-invasive reversible/photostable deterministic mechanisms for temperature sensing in microscopic sub-cellular biological environments.
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