Digital and Absolute Assays for Low Abundance Molecular Biomarkers

Chia Wei Kuo, Andrew M. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Conspectus There has been a recent surge of advances in biomolecular assays based on the measurement of discrete molecular targets as opposed to signals averaged across molecular ensembles. Many of these “digital” assay designs derive from now-mature technologies involving single-molecule imaging and microfluidics and provide an assortment of new modalities to quantify nucleic acids and proteins in biospecimens such as blood and tissue homogenates. A primary new benefit is the robust detection of trace analytes at attomolar to femtomolar concentrations for which many ensemble assays cannot distinguish signals above noise levels. In addition, multiple biomolecules can be differentiated within a mixture using optical barcodes, with much faster and simpler readouts compared with sequencing methods. In ideal digital assays, signals should, in theory, further represent absolute molecular counts, rather than relative levels, eliminating the need for calibration standards that are the mainstay of typical assays. Several digital assay platforms have now been commercialized but challenges hinder the adoption and diversification of these new formats, as there are broad needs to balance sensitivity and dynamic range of detection, increase analyte multiplexing, improve sample throughput, and reduce cost. Our lab and others have developed technologies to address these challenges by redesigning molecular probes and labels, improving molecular transport within detection focal volumes, and applying solution-based readout methods in flow. This Account describes the principles, formats, and design constraints of digital biomolecular assays that apply optical labels toward the goal of simple and routine target counting that may ultimately approach absolute readout standards. The primary challenges can be understood from fundamental concepts in thermodynamics and kinetics of association reactions, mass transport, and discrete statistics. Major advances include (1) new inorganic nanocrystal probes for more robust counting compared with dyes, (2) diverse molecular amplification tools that endow attachment of numerous labels to single targets, (3) specialized surfaces with patterned features for electromagnetic coupling to labels for signal amplification, (4) surface capture enhancement methods to concentrate targets through disruption of diffusion depletion zones, and (5) flow counting in which analytes are rapidly counted in solution without pull-down to a surface. Further progress and integration of these tools for biomolecular counting could improve the precision of laboratory measurements in life sciences research and benefit clinical diagnostic assays for low abundance biomarkers in limiting biospecimen volumes that are out of reach of traditional ensemble-level bioassays.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1031-1042
Number of pages12
JournalAccounts of chemical research
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 2 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry


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