The principles of the design of responsive luminescent probes and sensors based on lanthanide emission are summarised, based on a mechanistic understanding of their mode of action. Competing kinetic pathways for deactivation of the excited states that occur are described, highlighting the need to consider each of the salient quenching processes. Such an analysis dictates the choice of both the ligand and its integral sensitising moiety for the particular application. The key aspects of quenching involving electron transfer and vibrational and electronic energy transfer are highlighted and exemplified. Responsive systems for pH, pM, pX and pO2 and selected biochemical analytes are distinguished, according to the nature of the optical signal observed. Signal changes include both simple and ratiometric intensity measurements, emission lifetime variations and the unique features associated with the observation of circularly polarised luminescence (CPL) for chiral systems. A classification of responsive lanthanide probes is introduced. Examples of the operation of probes for reactive oxygen species, citrate, bicarbonate, α1-AGP and pH are used to illustrate reversible and irreversible transformations of the ligand constitution, as well as the reversible changes to the metal primary and secondary coordination sphere that sensitively perturb the ligand field. Finally, systems that function by modulation of dynamic quenching of the ligand or metal excited states are described, including real time observation of endosomal acidification in living cells, rapid urate analysis in serum, accurate temperature assessment in confined compartments and high throughput screening of drug binding to G-protein coupled receptors.
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