Improving agricultural technologies through the targeting abilities of aptamers

Beyond the double helix, DNA and RNA molecules can fold into many different shapes like aptamers, short sequences that can stick to specific target molecules.  Hoping to make use of this specificity, Dr. Maria DeRosa is investigating the potential of aptamers for more sustainable agricultural technologies. View Halo Profile >>

Tell us about your research

In the Laboratory for Aptamer Discovery and Development of Emerging Research (LADDER), we seek to develop biosensors and “smart” materials based on aptamers–short synthetic DNA or RNA sequences that specifically bind to a diverse variety of targets from small molecules to whole cells.  Our goal is to discover new aptamer sequences, understand their binding properties and apply them to help solve problems in a wide range of fields including health, environment and agriculture.  

Our goal is to discover new aptamer sequences, understand their binding properties and apply them to help solve problems in a wide range of fields including health, environment and agriculture.  

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

We find short stretches of DNA, known as aptamers, that are able to fold up into a tiny shape that lets them stick to really well a target molecule (such as a virus or a drug). Think of a lock and a key: the aptamer might fold up into a shape that is a “lock” and the target molecule might fit well into the shape as the “key”. The special thing about these aptamers is that they are very specific–only one target molecule will be the key that fits the lock. This allows aptamers to be great building blocks for things like sensors since they can be very selective about what they bind to and that can allow you to be confident in your measurement.

This allows aptamers to be great building blocks for things like sensors since they can be very selective about what they bind to and that can allow you to be confident in your measurement.

Why did you choose this area of research?

I was really fascinated by the idea that DNA, which is such an important biological molecule (the molecule of life), could be used in this unique way.  We can synthesize these short pieces of DNA and explore their properties that are based on their structure, not their biology. Chemist and Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffman wrote an article called “DNA as Clay” that really inspired me to pursue this area.  He wrote that DNA could, “allow human beings to sculpt something new, perhaps beautiful, perhaps useful, certainly unnatural” if chemists looked beyond the genetic view of DNA. I was hooked!

How could your Grants4Ag project someday impact #healthforall #hungerfornone?

I have been interested for many years now on how aptamers could be used to make agriculture more sustainable.  For example, in health research, aptamers have been used to help guide a drug to a diseased tissue while avoiding healthy cells. This led us to wonder if they could also be used to help deliver an agrochemical to a pest while avoiding any effect on the crop or other species, or if aptamers could deliver nutrients selectively to a crop while avoiding uptake by a weed.  If this targeting could be achieved, then it would mean less product used, less waste, better yields and a smaller environmental footprint.

If this targeting could be achieved, then it would mean less product used, less waste, better yields and a smaller environmental footprint.