In this paper we report an innovative and unconventional method based on circular dichroism for the identification of peanut DNA in food, which can be detected after PCR amplification at the nanomolar level by using an achiral PNA probe complementary to a tract of the peanut Ara h 2 gene and an achiral 3,3'-diethylthiadicarbocyanine dye [DiSC(2)(5)]. Peanuts are one of the most common causes of severe allergic reactions to foods and are particularly dangerous when they are "hidden" (undeclared) in food. For better protection of consumers, detection methods are required to specifically detect the presence of hidden allergens in a wide variety of food items. Alternative to the detection of the proteins is the determination of species-specific DNA, which is more resistant to technological treatments. PNAs are very specific probes able to recognize DNA sequences with high affinity and evidence for the binding can be obtained by using the DiSC(2)(5) dye, which aggregates onto the PNA-DNA duplex giving rise to a characteristic visibile band at 540 nm. Because the PNA-DNA duplex is in a right-handed helical conformation, the aggregation of the dye to the duplex gives also rise to a strong CD signal in the 500-600 nm region with a strong exciton coupling due to the formation of multimeric species, since the handedness of the helix is transferred to the dye aggregate. The dye does not interact with the free single-stranded DNA and although aggregating on the achiral PNA, this interaction is obviously not detectable by circular dichroism. Thus, only the formation of the PNA-DNA duplex, which takes place only upon specific Watson-Crick hydrogen binding between the PNA and the DNA bases, is detected, ensuring a very high specificity and sensitivity. The method has been optimized in a model system by using a synthetic oligonucleotide complementary to the PNA probe, showing that the intensity of the signal is linearly related to the amount of the DNA. The optimized method has been applied to the identification and quantitation of DNA extracted and amplified by PCR from peanuts and from peanut-containing foods, allowing for a very sensitive detection at a very low level (few pmol).
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