Colloidal semiconductor nanocrystals are widely used as lumiphores in biological imaging because their luminescence is both strong and stable, and because they can be biofunctionalized. During synthesis, nanocrystals are typically passivated with hydrophobic organic ligands, so it is then necessary either to replace these ligands or encapsulate the nanocrystals with hydrophilic moieties to make the lumiphores soluble in water. Finally, biological labels must be added to allow the detection of nucleic acids, proteins and specific cell types. This multistep process is time- and labour-intensive and thus out of reach of many researchers who want to use luminescent nanocrystals as customized lumiphores. Here, we show that a single designer ligand--a chimeric DNA molecule--can controllably program both the growth and the biofunctionalization of the nanocrystals. One part of the DNA sequence controls the nanocrystal passivation and serves as a ligand, while another part controls the biorecognition. The synthetic protocol reported here is straightforward and produces a homogeneous dispersion of nanocrystal lumiphores functionalized with a single biomolecular receptor. The nanocrystals exhibit strong optical emission in the visible region, minimal toxicity and have hydrodynamic diameters of approximately 6 nm, which makes them suitable for bioimaging. We show that the nanocrystals can specifically bind DNA, proteins or cells that have unique surface recognition markers.