Using Exonucleases for Aptamer Characterization, Engineering, and Sensing
Alkhamis, O., Canoura, J., Ly, P. T., & Xiao, Y. (2023, June 14). ACCOUNTS OF CHEMICAL RESEARCH.
ConspectusAptamers are short, single-stranded nucleic acids that have been selected from random libraries to bind specific molecules with high affinity via an in vitro method termed systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment (SELEX). They have been generated for diverse targets ranging from metal ions to small molecules to proteins and have demonstrated considerable promise as biorecognition elements in sensors for applications including medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, food safety, and forensic analysis. While aptamer sensors have made great strides in terms of sensitivity, specificity, turnaround time, and ease of use, several challenges have hindered their broader adoption. These include inadequate sensitivity, bottlenecks in aptamer binding characterization, and the cost and labor associated with aptamer engineering. In this Account, we describe our successes in using nuclease enzymes to address these problems. While working with nucleases to enhance the sensitivity of split aptamer sensors via enzyme-assisted target recycling, we serendipitously discovered that the digestion of DNA aptamers by exonucleases is inhibited when an aptamer is bound to a ligand. This finding served as the foundation for the development of three novel aptamer-related methodologies in our laboratory. First, we used exonucleases to truncate nonessential nucleotides from aptamers to generate structure-switching aptamers in a single step, greatly simplifying the aptamer engineering process. Second, we used exonucleases to develop a label-free aptamer-based detection platform that can utilize aptamers directly obtained from in vitro selection to detect analytes with ultralow background and high sensitivity. Through this approach, we were able to detect analytes at nanomolar levels in biological samples, with the capacity for achieving multiplexed detection by using molecular beacons. Finally, we used exonucleases to develop a high throughput means of characterizing aptamer affinity and specificity for a variety of ligands. This approach has enabled more comprehensive analysis of aptamers by greatly increasing the number of aptamer candidates and aptamer-ligand pairs that can be tested in a single experiment. We have also demonstrated the success of this method as a means for identifying new mutant aptamers with augmented binding properties and for quantifying aptamer-target affinity. Our enzymatic technologies can greatly streamline the aptamer characterization and sensor development process, and with the adoption of robotics or liquid handling systems in the future, it should be possible to rapidly identify the most suitable aptamers for a particular application from hundreds to thousands of candidates.