© 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. Carbon dots represent an emerging class of fluorescent materials and provide a broad application potential in various fields of biomedicine and optoelectronics. In this review, we introduce various synthetic strategies and basic photoluminescence properties of carbon dots, and then address their advanced in vitro and in vivo bioapplications including cell imaging, photoacoustic imaging, photodynamic therapy and targeted drug delivery. We further consider the applicability of carbon dots as components of light emitting diodes, which include carbon dot based electroluminescence, optical down-conversion, and hybrid plasmonic devices. The review concludes with an outlook towards future developments of these emerging light-emitting materials.