While remarkable progress has been made in developing sensors for metal ions such as Ca(II) and Zn(II), designing and synthesizing sensitive and selective metal ion sensors remains a significant challenge. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the design and synthesis of a sensor capable of specific and strong metal binding. Since our knowledge about the construction of metal-binding sites in general is limited, searching for sensors in a combinatorial way is of significant value. Therefore, we have been able to use a combinatorial method called in vitro selection to obtain catalytic DNA that can bind a metal ion of choice strongly and specifically. The metal ion selectivity of the catalytic DNA was further improved using a ‘negative selection’ strategy where catalytic DNA that are selective for competing metal ions are discarded in the in vitro selection processes. By labeling the resulting catalytic DNA with a fluorophore/quencher pair, we have made a new class of metal ion fluorescent sensors that are the first examples of catalytic DNA biosensors for metal ions. The sensors combine the high selectivity of catalytic DNA with the high sensitivity of fluorescent detection, and can be applied to the quantitative detection of metal ions over a wide concentration range and with high selectivity. The use of DNA sensors in detection and quantification of lead ions in environmental samples such as water from Lake Michigan has been demonstrated. DNA is stable, cost-effective, environmentally benign, and easily adaptable to optical fiber and microarray technology for device manufacture. Thus, the DNA sensors explained here hold great promise for on-site and real-time monitoring of metal ions in the fields of environmental monitoring, developmental biology, clinical toxicology, wastewater treatment, and industrial process monitoring.
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