Microchimica Acta

, 185:254 | Cite as

Fluorometric aptamer based assay for ochratoxin A based on the use of exonuclease III

  • Renjie Liu
  • Hua Wu
  • Lei Lv
  • Xiaojiao Kang
  • Chengbi Cui
  • Jin Feng
  • Zhijun Guo
Original Paper


This study describes an aptamer based assay for the mycotoxin ochratoxin A (OTA). The method is based on the use of an OTA-specific aptamer, exonuclease (Exo) III, SYBR Gold as a fluorescent probe, and a complementary strand that specifically combines with the aptamer. In the presence of OTA, the aptamer and OTA hybridize, thereby resulting in the formation of ssDNA, which is not digested by Exo III. Intense fluorescence is observed after addition of SYBR Gold (best measured at excitation/emission wavelengths of 495/540 nm). Fluorescence increases linearly with the log of the OTA concentration in the range from 8 to 1000 ng·mL−1. The detection limit is 4.7 ng·mL−1. The assay was applied to the determination of OTA in diluted [2%(v/v)] red wine, and recoveries and RSDs ranged between 93.5% and 113.8%, and between 3.2% and 5.7%, respectively.

Graphical abstract

In the presence of ochratoxin A (OTA), specific combinations of aptamer and OTA may occur and result in DNA double strands being untied, which avoids being digested by Exo III. Intense fluorescence is observed after SYBR Gold addition.


Mycotoxin Fluorescent probe Exo III Complementary strand 


Ochratoxin A (OTA) is a mycotoxin produced by several Aspergillus and Penicillium species on different agricultural commodities [1]. OTA is mainly found in cereals, wheat, maize, beans and derived products, dried fruits, coffee, grapes and wine, spices, oil crops, beer, tea, and so on [2]. Toxicological studies have shown that OTA is the most nephrotoxic among the ochratoxins. Moreover, it is toxic to the liver, nervous system, and immune system. It is carcinogenic and mutagenic and causes fetal malformations [3]. Considering its potential harm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer regards OTA as a potential carcinogen for humans (group 2B) [4]. The European Commission established restrictive criteria for the consumption of raw cereal grains and all cereal-derived products (5 μg·kg−1) [2]. Currently, various analytical methods for OTA determination have been established, including conventional chromatographic methods, such as thin layer chromatography, high-performance liquid chromatography, gas chromatography, and fluorescence or mass spectrometry [5, 6, 7, 8]. A series of immunological methods has been employed in OTA. The most common method is the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), which offers the advantages of simple operation, rapidity, sensitivity, simplicity, low technical requirement, and suitability for large-scale screening. However, ELISA requires the use of antibodies, the pretreatment of which is highly costly and complicated [7]. Environmental conditions, such as temperature and pH, greatly affect antibodies and antigens. Therefore, antibodies are not easy to store and exhibit poor stability.

Aptamers are short segments of RNA or DNA single-stranded oligonucleotide sequences screened in vitro through the systematic evolution of ligands by exponential enrichment [9, 10]. They can form unique three-dimensional structures by folding, such as hairpin, pseudoknot, and G-quadruplex, to combine with their target with high affinity and high specificity [11, 12]. Their recognition function is similar to that of antibodies but is superior due to the following properties. First, aptamers exhibit high chemical stability and are not easy to inactivate. Second, they possess small molecular weight and are prone to chemical modifications. Finally, their in vitro screening does not depend on animals and cells, and they can be synthesized by PCR technology [13, 14]. Thus, aptamers are widely applied for protein research, drug analysis, virus detection, food safety, and other fields due to these advantages.

OTA is a small molecule biological toxin with weak immunogenicity, limiting the application of immunosensors. Aptamer based biosensor has overcome this defect and has been successfully applied to OTA detection. Compared with other detection methods, fluorescent aptasensor offers more advantages, such as low cost, high sensibility, simplicity, rapidity, and capability for on-site detection [15, 16, 17]. However, many fluorescence experiments currently require labeling or modifying fluorophores on aptamers, thereby increasing the complexity of these assays. Moreover, they considerably affect specific binding between aptamers and targets, compromising the sensitivity of experiments [18, 19]. Considering these points, we designed a label-free aptamer assay to specifically detect OTA.

Luminescent probes with good biocompatibility have been utilized in multiple areas, such as cell imaging [20, 21, 22, 23], sensing and analytical applications [24, 25, 26, 27, 28]. Among these luminescence probes, SYBR Gold is one of the best cyanine dyes and can bind specifically to nucleic acids, thereby increasing fluorescence intensity [13]. Based on this characteristic, SYBR Gold was used as the fluorescent dye in our experiment. We took advantage of the double-stand specificity and nonprocessive 3′–5′ exodeoxyribonuclease activity of exonuclease (Exo) III to establish a “turn on” aptamer for OTA detection. The aptamer first combines with a complementary strand to form dsDNA. In the presence of OTA, the binding capacity between the aptamer and OTA is greater than that with the complementary strand. Therefore, the aptamer can be liberated from dsDNA to specifically combine with OTA, thereby protecting DNA from Exo III digestion. When SYBR Gold is added, strong fluorescence is obtained. By contrast, in the absence of OTA, Exo III can digest dsDNA into nucleotides, and weak fluorescence is obtained with the addition of SYBR Gold. Typically, OTA concentration is proportional to the amount of aptamer and complementary strand after nuclease reaction, which is also proportional to the fluorescence intensity generated by SYBR Gold. Therefore, OTA can be quantitatively detected based on fluorescence signal changes.


Materials and reagents

OTA aptamer and its complementary strands (CS10, CS11, CS12, CS13, CS18, and CS36) were synthesized by Shanghai Sangon Biotechnology Co., Ltd. (Shanghai China, CS10, CS11, CS12, CS13, and CS18 were partially complementary to the OTA aptamer with 10, 11, 12, 13, and 18 nucleotides (nt), respectively. CS36 with 36-nt was perfectly complementary to the OTA aptamer. The DNA sequences are listed in Table 1. Tris buffer (10 mM, pH 8.0) containing 120, 5, 10, and 20 mM of NaCl, KCl, MgCl2, and CaCl2, respectively, was used for dissolving oligonucleotides to obtain a DNA stock solution, which was stored at −20 °C before use. Exo III was purchased from Takara Biotechnology Co., Ltd. (Dalian, China, OTA was purchased from Aladdin reagent Co., Ltd. (Shanghai, China, OTA stock solution (40 μg·mL−1) was prepared by dissolving OTA in absolute ethanol; this stock solution was stored at −20 °C. n-Acetyl-L-phenylalanine (NAP), warfarin (WF), aflatoxin B1 (AFB1), zearalenone (ZEN), and OTB were obtained from Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis, MO, USA, Ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA), Tris(hydroxymethyl) aminomethane (Tris), acetic acid and agarose were bought from Sigma-Aldrich (Shanghai, China, Wine was produced by ChangYu Pioneer Wine Co., Ltd. (Yantai, China, All other chemicals used in the study were of analytical grade.
Table 1

Synthesized oligonucleotides (5′-3′) used in the experiment


Sequence (5′-3′)
















A Cary 500 scan UV/Vis spectrophotometer (Varian, USA, was employed to quantify the oligonucleotides. Electropherograms were photographed by using a WD-9413B gel imaging system (Beijing, China, A Shimadzu RF-5301 fluorescence spectrometer (Tokyo, Japan, was used to record fluorescence intensities. Emission spectra were recorded at a wavelength range of 480–640 nm, whereas excitation wavelength was set to 495 nm. Both excitation and emission slits were set to 3 nm.

OTA fluorescence detection

Mixtures containing 100 μL of 500 nM aptamer and 100 μL of 500 nM complementary strand were denatured at 95 °C for 5 min and incubated in a 37 °C water bath for 1 h. Then, 100 μL of different concentrations OTA solution were added to the mixture and incubated at 37 °C for 1 h. Afterward, 100 μL buffer containing of 30 U Exo III was added in the solution; digestion reaction was allowed to proceed at 37 °C for 2 h. Finally, 100 μL of 20× SYBR Gold was added until a final volume of 500 μL was reached. The solution was kept in the dark for 30 min, and fluorescence intensity was measured at excitation/emission wavelengths of 495/540 nm. Analyses were always performed in triplicate.


To confirm the feasibility of this aptamer assay for analysis of actual samples, five different concentrations of OTA (8, 20, 80, 400 and 1000 ng·mL−1) were spiked into red wine, and fluorescent intensity was used to determine OTA concentrations.

Results and discussion

Design method for OTA detection

The designed aptamer assay was based on target-induced untying of dsDNA structures, digestion of dsDNA by Exo III, and the capabilities of SYBR Gold as fluorescent probe. As described in Scheme 1, the aptamer was first mixed with complementary strand to form DNA double strands. In the presence of OTA, dsDNA was untied and resisted Exo III digestion, because the aptamer was bound stronger to OTA compared with the complementary strand. When SYBR Gold was added, intensive fluorescence was emitted. In the absence of OTA, dsDNA was not untied, and intact double strands were digested into nucleotides by Exo III. When SYBR Gold was added, SYBR Gold failed to bind with the digested products, and thus weak fluorescence signals were detected. Therefore, OTA concentration was proportional to fluorescence intensity, and OTA was quantitatively detected based on fluorescence signal changes.
Scheme 1

Schematic representation based on Exo III and SYBR Gold for OTA detection

Figure 1 shows the feasibility of the method. Evidently, fluorescence intensity was reduced by more than twice in the presence of Exo III compared with its absence. The dsDNAs were digested by Exo III, thereby resulting in decreased fluorescence intensity. However, when OTA was added, fluorescence intensity remarkably increased. The presence of OTA untied dsDNA, and the untied DNA is not be digested by Exo III. Thus, fluorescence intensity increased.
Fig. 1

Feasibility of Exo III digestion assay

Direct evidence showing the feasibility of the strategy was provided via agarose gel electrophoresis analysis. As shown in Fig. S 1 , lane 1 exhibited a weak band because of the Exo III-induced degradation of aptamer/complementary strand dsDNA to nucleotides, which then migrated out of the gel. Without Exo III, lane 3 exhibited a bright band. Lane 2 also showed a bright band, because the aptamer combined with OTA and untied the dsDNA. The untied dsDNA resisted Exo III digestion. OTA addition prevented enzymatic digestion, thereby further demonstrating the feasibility of our designed experiment.

Optimization of assay conditions

After demonstrating the feasibility of this method, several important aspects were investigated systematically to obtain excellent analytical performance for OTA detection. The final concentration of the aptamer was fixed at 100 nM, and the following parameters were optimized: (a) complementary strand length; (b) concentration of Exo III; and (c) concentration of SYBR Gold. The pertinent figures (Figs. S2, S3, and S4) are presented in the Electronic Supporting Material. The following experimental conditions provided the optimum results: (a) complementary strand length of 11 nt; (b) Exo III addition of 30 U; and (c) SYBR Gold concentration of 4 × .

Sensitivity analysis of OTA detection

The sensitivity of the assay based on Exo III and SYBR gold was investigated by employing different OTA concentrations. As depicted in Fig. 2a, fluorescence was intensified as OTA concentration increased, thereby indicating a preferable signal-on sensing mechanism. Figure 2b shows the calibration curve for the quantitative analysis of target OTA. A linear relationship between the fluorescent intensity ratio and the natural logarithm concentration of OTA was plotted in the range of 8–1000 ng·mL−1. The linear regression equation was y = 0.07451×-0.122 (R 2  = 0.991). The detection limit (LOD) was defined as the concentration corresponding to the fluorescence signal at three fold standard deviation of the blank without OTA. The calculated limit of detection of this assay was 4.7 ng·mL−1.
Fig. 2

a Fluorescence results of the detection strategy corresponding to various OTA concentrations (a to i: 0, 8, 20, 80, 400, 1000, 2000, 5000, and 10,000 ng·mL−1). The excitation wavelength was at 495 nm, and the emission was monitored at 540 nm. b Calibration plot of fluorescence intensity ratios at 540 nm against the corresponding OTA natural logarithm concentrations. Error bars were obtained from three experiments

Selectivity of OTA detection

To verify whether OTA and aptamer specifically bind to each other, we utilized the sensing platform to detect various structural analogs and mycotoxins such as OTB, NAP, WF, AFB1, and ZEN. In the selectivity experiment, the concentrations were all 1000 ng·mL−1. The detection result is presented in Fig. 3. Addition of the analogs and mycotoxins did not change the fluorescence intensity ratio compared with the blank group. Nevertheless, in the presence of OTA, fluorescence intensity significantly increased, as shown in the column diagram (Fig. 3). On the basis of the data, we concluded that aptamer and OTA were specifically recognized, thereby indicating that the aptamer assay exhibited good selectivity to OTA.
Fig. 3

Detection selectivity of assay. The concentrations of NAP, WF, AFB1, ZEN, OTB, and OTA were all at 1000 ng·mL−1. Error bars were obtained from three experiments

Application of OTA in real samples

Applying our designed experiments to OTA detection in real samples was the key factor that indicated the success of the experiment. We challenged our system with red wine, which can be contaminated with OTA. The absence of OTA in the red wine sample purchased from a local supermarket was first confirmed via HPLC. Buffers containing 2% (v/v) red wine were spiked with various, known OTA concentrations. The spiked samples were further quantified using the fluorescent aptamer assay. The analysis results are listed in Table 2. Evidently, the concentration of the detected OTA was very close to the spiked values. Through three independent experiments, we determined that the range of recoveries and RSD were 93.5%–113.8% and 3.2%–5.7%, respectively. According to the data, our designed experiment can be successfully applied to the detection of OTA in real samples.
Table 2

Application of aptamer assay for OTA determination in red wine samples

Sample number

Added (ng·mL−1)





























The data reported in the table represented the average of three measurements


On the basis of the properties of Exo III and SYBR Gold, we designed an aptamer based fluorescent assay to monitor OTA with a detection limit of 4.7 ng·mL−1. The assay was successfully applied to red wine samples. A comparison of other methods, including this method for OTA detection, is shown in Table 3. HPLC methods had a very low detection limit, but the synthesis and immobilization are complicated, and the entire experiment was time consuming. The immunoassay also showed a very low detection limit. However, the antibodies used in the process displayed a high conservation requirement and were easy to denature. These conditions may have affected the experimental results. Luminescence resonance energy-transfer (LRET) method utilized upconversion nanoparticles (UCNPs) as the carriers for detection. Nevertheless, UCNPs showed high sensitivity to temperatures requiring complex instrumentation but produced too low quantum yields for practical application. The fluorescent assay utilized SWCNHs and gold nanoparticles for detection. However, the SWCNHs and nanoparticles are prone to form a disordered aggregation, which can influence the interaction between the aptamer and OTA. The fluorescent assay utilizing PicoGreen is a simple and easy operation. However, the sensing systems are in a turn-off mode. Such turn-off assays might compromise specificity, because other quenchers or environmental stimuli might lead to fluorescence quenching, thereby leading to “false positive” results. This fluorescent assay utilized SYBR Gold, because the fluorescent probe eliminated the laborious and expensive process of DNA modification, thereby reducing the cost and complexity of experiments. This assay showed high selectivity, high practicability, and acceptable detection limited. The major limitation is the enzyme needed. The enzyme is susceptible under ambient conditions, and activity can be lost easily.
Table 3

Comparison of specific features of the designed methods with other methods for OTA detection

Materials used

Method applied





0.11 ng·mL−1



Electrochemical immunoassay

0.075 pg·mL−1


Cd/Te QDs

FRET-based immunoassay

0.8 pg·mL−1



LRET assay

27 pg·mL−1



Fluorescence assay

1.6 ng·mL−1


Gold nanoparticles

Fluorescent assay

9.1 ng·mL−1



Fluorescence assay

1 ng·mL−1



Fluorescence assay

4.7 ng·mL−1

This work



This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 31460423 and 31360384), the department of Sciences & Technology of Jilin Province (20160520047JH) and the department of education of Jilin Province (2016252).

Compliance with ethical standards

The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests.

Supplementary material

604_2018_2786_MOESM1_ESM.doc (180 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 179 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Austria, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Renjie Liu
    • 1
  • Hua Wu
    • 1
    • 2
  • Lei Lv
    • 2
  • Xiaojiao Kang
    • 3
  • Chengbi Cui
    • 2
  • Jin Feng
    • 2
  • Zhijun Guo
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute of food science and engineeringJilin agricultural UniversityChangchunChina
  2. 2.College of agricultureYanbian universityYanjiChina
  3. 3.School of Electrical Engineering and IntelligentizationDongguan University of TechnologyDongguanChina

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