A cooperative-binding split aptamer assay for rapid, specific and ultra-sensitive fluorescence detection of cocaine in saliva

Chem Sci. 2017 Jan 1;8(1):131-141. doi: 10.1039/c6sc01833e. Epub 2016 Jul 29.


Sensors employing split aptamers that reassemble in the presence of a target can achieve excellent specificity, but the accompanying reduction of target affinity mitigates any overall gains in sensitivity. We for the first time have developed a split aptamer that achieves enhanced target-binding affinity through cooperative binding. We have generated a split cocaine-binding aptamer that incorporates two binding domains, such that target binding at one domain greatly increases the affinity of the second domain. We experimentally demonstrate that the resulting cooperative-binding split aptamer (CBSA) exhibits higher target binding affinity and is far more responsive in terms of target-induced aptamer assembly compared to the single-domain parent split aptamer (PSA) from which it was derived. We further confirm that the target-binding affinity of our CBSA can be affected by the cooperativity of its binding domains and the intrinsic affinity of its PSA. To the best of our knowledge, CBSA-5335 has the highest cocaine affinity of any split aptamer described to date. The CBSA-based assay also demonstrates excellent performance in target detection in complex samples. Using this CBSA, we achieved specific, ultra-sensitive, one-step fluorescence detection of cocaine within fifteen minutes at concentrations as low as 50 nM in 10% saliva without signal amplification. This limit of detection meets the standards recommended by the European Union's Driving under the Influence of Drugs, Alcohol and Medicines program. Our assay also demonstrates excellent reproducibility of results, confirming that this CBSA-platform represents a robust and sensitive means for cocaine detection in actual clinical samples.