Machine learning guided aptamer refinement and discovery

Ali Bashir, Qin Yang, Jinpeng Wang, Stephan Hoyer, Wenchuan Chou, Cory McLean, Geoff Davis, Qiang Gong, Zan Armstrong, Junghoon Jang, Hui Kang, Annalisa Pawlosky, Alexander Scott, George E. Dahl, Marc Berndl, Michelle Dimon, B. Scott Ferguson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Aptamers are single-stranded nucleic acid ligands that bind to target molecules with high affinity and specificity. They are typically discovered by searching large libraries for sequences with desirable binding properties. These libraries, however, are practically constrained to a fraction of the theoretical sequence space. Machine learning provides an opportunity to intelligently navigate this space to identify high-performing aptamers. Here, we propose an approach that employs particle display (PD) to partition a library of aptamers by affinity, and uses such data to train machine learning models to predict affinity in silico. Our model predicted high-affinity DNA aptamers from experimental candidates at a rate 11-fold higher than random perturbation and generated novel, high-affinity aptamers at a greater rate than observed by PD alone. Our approach also facilitated the design of truncated aptamers 70% shorter and with higher binding affinity (1.5 nM) than the best experimental candidate. This work demonstrates how combining machine learning and physical approaches can be used to expedite the discovery of better diagnostic and therapeutic agents.

Original languageEnglish
Article number2366
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes


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