Clinical and field-portable diagnostic devices require the detection of atto- to zeptomoles of biological molecules rapidly, easily and at low cost, with stringent requirements in terms of robustness and reliability. Though a number of creative approaches to this difficult problem have been reported, numerous unmet needs remain in the marketplace, particularly in resource-poor settings. Using rational materials design, we investigated harnessing the amplification inherent in a radical chain polymerization reaction to detect molecular recognition. Polymerization-based amplification is shown to yield a macroscopically observable polymer, easily visible to the unaided eye, as a result of as few as approximately 1,000 recognition events (10 zeptomoles). Design and synthesis of a dual-functional macromolecule that is capable both of selective recognition and of initiating a polymerization reaction was central to obtaining high sensitivity and eliminating the need for any detection equipment. Herein, we detail the design criteria that were used and compare our findings with those obtained using enzymatic amplification. Most excitingly, this new approach is general in that it is readily adaptable to facile detection at very low levels of specific biological interactions of any kind.
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