With a low optical background, high loading capacity, and good biocompatibility, hydrogels are ideal materials for immobilization of biopolymers to develop optical biosensors. We recently immobilized mercury and lead binding DNAs within a monolithic gel and demonstrated ultrasensitive visual detection of these heavy metals. The high sensitivity was attributed to the enrichment of the analytes into the gels. The signaling kinetics was slow, however, taking about 1 h to obtain a stable optical signal because of a long diffusion distance. In this work, we aim to understand the analyte enrichment process and improve the signaling kinetics by preparing hydrogel microparticles. DNA-functionalized gel beads were synthesized using an emulsion polymerization technique and most of the beads were between 10 and 50 μm. Acrydite-modified DNA was incorporated by copolymerization. Visual detection of 10 nM Hg(2+) was still achieved and a stable signal was obtained in just 2 min. The gel beads could be spotted to form a microarray and dried for storage. A new visual sensor for adenosine was designed and immobilized within the gel beads. The adenosine aptamer binds its target about 1000-fold less tightly compared to the mercury binding DNA, allowing a comparison to be made on analyte enrichment by aptamer-functionalized hydrogels.
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