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Class-specific bioreceptors are highly desirable for recognizing structurally similar small molecules, but the generation of such affinity elements has proven challenging. We here develop a novel ‘parallel-and-serial’ selection strategy for isolating class-specific oligonucleotide-based receptors (aptamers) in vitro. This strategy first entails parallel selection to selectively enrich cross-reactive binding sequences, followed by serial selection that enriches aptamers binding to a designated target family. As a demonstration, we isolate a class-specific DNA aptamer against a family of designer drugs known as synthetic cathinones. The aptamer binds to 12 diverse synthetic cathinones with nanomolar affinity and does not respond to 11 structurally similar non-target compounds, some of which differ from the cathinone targets by a single atom. This is the first account of an aptamer exhibiting a combination of broad target cross-reactivity, high affinity and remarkable specificity. Leveraging the qualities of this aptamer, instantaneous colorimetric detection of synthetic cathinones at nanomolar concentrations in biological samples is achieved. Our findings significantly expand the binding capabilities of aptamers as class-specific bioreceptors and further demonstrate the power of rationally designed selection strategies for isolating customized aptamers with desired binding profiles. We believe that our aptamer isolation approach can be broadly applied to isolate class-specific aptamers for various small molecule families.


Originally published in Nucleic Acids Research.

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