Kevin Plaxco, PhD
Stealing nature's tricks to build better biosensors
University of California, Santa Barbara
Professor, Chemistry & Biochemistry, Biomolecular Science & Engineering
Associate Director, Center for Bioengineering
2011 Beckman Scholars Program Mentor
The ideal sensor will be sensitive, specific, versatile, small enough to hold in your hand, and selective enough to work even when faced with complex, contaminant-ridden samples. Given the affinity, specificity and generalizability of biomolecular recognition, biosensors have been widely touted for their potential to meet these challenging goals. To date, however, the translation of protein- and nucleic acid-binding events into convenient, highly selective sensing platforms has proven difficult. We have solved this problem by stealing a trick from nature. Specifically, we have developed a new class of biosensors in which, as is true for naturally occurring molecular receptors, the presence of the target is signaled via a binding-induced change in the shape of the receptor. These new, “bio-mimetic” sensors are rapid (minutes to seconds), sensitive (micromolar to femtomolar), and generalizable to an enormous range of protein, nucleic acid and small molecule targets. And like the naturally occurring receptors that inspired them, they are also reagentless, reusable, and selective enough to be employed in blood serum, soil and other grossly contaminated samples. Because of their sensitivity, background suppression and operational convenience these new biosensors appear ideally suited for diagnostics at the point of care and in the developing world.