Fluorescently labeled oligonucleotides are commonly employed as probes to detect specific DNA or RNA sequences in homogeneous solution. Useful probes should experience strong increases in fluorescent emission upon hybridization with the target. We developed dual labeled peptide nucleic acid probes, which signal the presence of complementary DNA or RNA by up to 450-fold enhancements of fluorescence intensity. This enabled the very sensitive detection of a DNA target (40 pM LOD), which was detectable at less than 0.1% of the beacon concentration. In contrast to existing DNA-based molecular beacons, this PNA-based method does not require a stem sequence to enforce dye–dye communication. Rather, the method relies on the energy transfer between a “smart” thiazole orange (TO) nucleotide, which requires formation of the probe–target complex in order to become fluorescent, and terminally appended acceptor dyes. To improve upon fluorescence responsiveness the energy pathways were dissected. Hydrophobic, spectrally mismatched dye combinations allowed significant (99.97%) decreases of background emission in the absence of a target. By contrast, spectral overlap between TO donor emission and acceptor excitation enabled extremely bright FRET signals. This and the large apparent Stokes shift (82 nm) suggests potential applications in the detection of specific RNA targets in biogenic matrices without the need of sample pre-processing prior to detection.
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