Computational approach to speed up the identification of viruses and bacteria

Computer simulations of molecular probes binding weakly to target DNA suggests a new way to help detect diseases.

The current coronavirus crisis highlights the need for fast and accurate detection of infectious diseases. Both viral infections like coronavirus and bacterial infections like those associated with antimicrobial resistance (AMR) can be detected by screening for DNA in patient samples. However this is challenging because the amount of disease DNA is small and it has to be detected in the presence of other, non-disease DNA. Typically, scientists undertake this screening by designing molecular probes that bind strongly to the disease DNA but not to the non-disease DNA.

A new study, which is about to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, uses computer simulations to suggest how this could be done better. The idea is that instead of designing molecular probes that bind strongly to one place on the target DNA, scientists should, counterintuitively, design probes that bind weakly all over the target DNA.

Experiments are required to test how well this works in practice – but it is exciting work, given the urgent need for fast, reliable disease detection methods, especially those that can be applied in countries with a weak health infrastructure.

This work was conducted by Prof Rosalind Allen at the University of Edinburgh, jointly with a multinational team of researchers in Cambridge, China, London and Slovenia.