A research team from Arizona State University headed by Stuart Lindsay, director of the Biodesign Institute Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, has developed a new approach to detecting DNA base pairs. The technology, which utilizes advanced microscopes to identify the effect that a given nucleoside makes on an electron-tunneling junction, may become a leading contender as a standard sequencing modality of the future.
Lindsay’s team relies on the eyes of nanotechnology, scanning tunneling- (STM) and atomic force- (ATM) microscopes, to make their measurements. The microscopes have a delicate electrode tip that is held very close to the DNA sample. In their latest innovation, Lindsay’s team made two electrodes, one on the end of microscope probe, and another on the surface, that had their tiny ends chemically modified to attract and catch the DNA between a gap like a pair of chemical tweezers. The gap between these functionalized electrodes had to be adjusted to find the chemical bonding sweet spot, so that when a single chemical base of DNA passed through a tiny, 2.5 nanometer gap between two gold electrodes, it momentarily sticks to the electrodes and a small increase in the current is detected. Any smaller, and the molecules would be able to bind in many configurations, confusing the readout, any bigger and smaller bases would not be detected.
At this scale, which is just a few atomic diameters wide, quantum phenomena are at play where the electrons can actually leak from one electrode to the other, tunneling through the DNA bases in the process. Each of the chemical bases of the DNA genetic code, abbreviated A, C, T or G, gives a unique electrical signature as they pass between the gap in the electrodes. By trial and error, and a bit of serendipity, they discovered that just a single chemical modification to both electrodes could distinguish between all 4 DNA bases.
“We were quite surprised about binding to bare electrodes because, like many physicists, we had always assumed that the bases would just tumble through. But actually, any surface chemist will tell you that the bases have weak chemical interactions with metal surfaces.”
Next, Lindsay’s group is hard at work trying to adapt the reader to work in water-based solutions, a critically practical step for DNA sequencing applications. Also, the team would like to combine the reader capabilities with the carbon nanotube technology to work on reading short stretches of DNA.