A strategy to extend the detection range of weakly-binding targets is reported that takes advantage of fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET)-based bioassays based on molecular beacon aptamers (MBAs) and cationic conjugated polyelectrolytes (CPEs). In comparison to other aptamer-target pairs, the aptamer-based adenosine triphosphate (ATP) detection assays are limited by the relatively weak binding between the two partners. In response, a series of MBAs were designed that have different stem stabilities while keeping the constant ATP-specific aptamer sequence in the loop part. The MBAs are labeled with a fluorophore and a quencher at both termini. In the absence of ATP, the hairpin MBAs can be opened by CPEs via a combination of electrostatic and hydrophobic interactions, showing a FRET-sensitized fluorophore signal. In the presence of ATP, the aptamer forms a G-quadruplex and the FRET signal decreases due to tighter contact between the fluorophore and quencher in the ATP/MBA/CPE triplex structure. The FRET-sensitized signal is inversely proportional to [ATP]. The extension of the detection range is determined by the competition between opening of the ATP/MBA G-quadruplex by CPEs and the composite influence by ATP/aptamer binding and the stem interactions. With increasing stem stability, the weak binding of ATP and its aptamer is successfully compensated to show the resistance to disruption by CPEs, resulting in a substantially broadened detection range (from millimolar up to nanomolar concentrations) and a remarkably improved limit of detection. From a general perspective, this strategy has the potential to be extended to other chemical- and biological-assays with low target binding affinity.
ASJC Scopus subject areas