Recently, plasmonic-based biosensing has experienced an unprecedented level of attention, with a particular focus on the nucleic acid detection, offering efficient solutions to engineer simple, fast, highly sensitive sensing platforms while overcoming important limitations of PCR and microarray techniques. In the broad field of plasmonics, surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) spectroscopy has arisen as a powerful analytical tool for detection and structural characterization of biomolecules. Today applications of SERS to nucleic acid analysis largely rely on indirect strategies, which have been demonstrated very effective for pure sensing purposes but completely dismiss the exquisite structural information provided by the direct acquisition of the biomolecular vibrational fingerprint. Contrarily, direct label-free SERS of nucleic acid shows an outstanding potential in terms of chemical-specific information which, however, remained largely unexpressed mainly because of the inherent poor spectral reproducibility and/or limited sensitivity.
To address these limitations, we developed a fast and affordable high-throughput screening direct SERS method for gaining detailed genomic information on nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and for the characterization and quantitative recognition of DNA interactions with exogenous agents. The simple strategy relies on the electrostatic adhesion of DNA/RNA onto positively-charged silver colloids that promotes the nanoparticle aggregation into stable clusters yielding intense and reproducible SERS spectra at picogram level (i.e. the analysis can be performed without the necessity of amplification steps thus providing realistic direct information of the nucleic acid in its native state). We anticipate this method to gain a vast impact and set of applications in different fields, including medical diagnostics, genomic screening, drug discovery, forensic science and even molecular electronics.