Direct Selection Strategy for Isolating Aptamers with pH-Sensitive Binding Activity

An aptamer reagent that can switch its binding affinity in a pH-responsive manner would be highly valuable for many biomedical applications including imaging and drug delivery. Unfortunately, the discovery of such aptamers is difficult and only a few have been reported to date. Here we report the first experimental strategy for generating pH-responsive aptamers through direct selection. As an exemplar, we report streptavidin-binding aptamers that retain nanomolar affinity at pH 7.4 but exhibit a ∼100-fold decrease in affinity at pH 5.2. These aptamers were generated by incorporating a known streptavidin-binding DNA motif into an aptamer library and performing FACS-based screening at multiple pH conditions. Upon structural analysis, we found that one aptamer’s affinity-switching behavior is driven by a noncanonical G-A base-pair that controls its folding in a highly pH-dependent manner. We believe our strategy could be readily extended to other aptamer-target systems because it does not require a priori structural knowledge of the aptamer or the target.