Ultra-sensitive and rapid detection of nucleic acids and microorganisms in body fluids using single-molecule tethering

Wen Chih Cheng, Troy Horn, Maya Zayats, Georges Rizk, Samuel Major, Hongying Zhu, Joseph Russell, Zhiguang Xu, Richard E. Rothman, Alfredo Celedon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Detection of microbial nucleic acids in body fluids has become the preferred method for rapid diagnosis of many infectious diseases. However, culture-based diagnostics that are time-consuming remain the gold standard approach in certain cases, such as sepsis. New culture-free methods are urgently needed. Here, we describe Single MOLecule Tethering or SMOLT, an amplification-free and purification-free molecular assay that can detect microorganisms in body fluids with high sensitivity without the need of culturing. The signal of SMOLT is generated by the displacement of micron-size beads tethered by DNA probes that are between 1 and 7 microns long. The molecular extension of thousands of DNA probes is determined with sub-micron precision using a robust and rapid optical approach. We demonstrate that SMOLT can detect nucleic acids directly in blood, urine and sputum at sub-femtomolar concentrations, and microorganisms in blood at 1 CFU mL−1 (colony forming unit per milliliter) threefold faster, with higher multiplexing capacity and with a more straight-forward protocol than amplified methodologies. SMOLT’s clinical utility is further demonstrated by developing a multiplex assay for simultaneous detection of sepsis-causing Candida species directly in whole blood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number4774
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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