MicroRNAs (miRNAs), small non-coding RNA molecules, are important biomarkers for research and medical purposes. Here, we describe the development of a fast and simple method using highly fluorescent oligonucleotide-silver nanocluster probes (DNA/AgNCs) to efficiently detect specific miRNAs. Due to the great sequence diversity of miRNAs in humans and other organisms, a uniform strategy for miRNA detection is attractive. The concept presented is an oligonucleotide-based locking-to-unlocking system that can be endowed with miRNA complementarity while maintaining the same secondary structure. The locking-to-unlocking system is based on fold-back anchored DNA templates that consist of a cytosine-rich loop for AgNCs stabilization, an miRNA recognition site and an overlap region for hairpin stabilization. When an miRNA is recognized, fluorescence in the visible region is specifically extinguished in a concentration-dependent manner. Here, the exact composition of the fold-back anchor for the locking-to-unlocking system has been systematically optimized, balancing propensity for loop-structure formation, encapsulation of emissive AgNCs and target sensitivity. It is demonstrated that the applied strategy successfully can detect a number of cancer related miRNAs in RNA extracts from human cancer cell lines.
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