Lowering the limit of detection is key to the design of sensors needed for food safety regulations, environmental policies and the diagnosis of severe diseases. However, because conventional transducers generate a signal that is directly proportional to the concentration of the target molecule, ultralow concentrations of the molecule result in variations in the physical properties of the sensor that are tiny, and therefore difficult to detect with confidence. Here we present a signal-generation mechanism that redefines the limit of detection of nanoparticle sensors by inducing a signal that is larger when the target molecule is less concentrated. The key step to achieve this inverse sensitivity is to use an enzyme that controls the rate of nucleation of silver nanocrystals on plasmonic transducers. We demonstrate the outstanding sensitivity and robustness of this approach by detecting the cancer biomarker prostate-specific antigen down to 10(-18) g ml(-1) (4 × 10(-20) M) in whole serum.