Guanine-rich nucleic acids can form G-quadruplexes that are important in gene regulation, biosensor design and nano-structure construction. In this article, we report on the development of a nanopore encapsulating single-molecule method for exploring how cations regulate the folding and unfolding of the G-quadruplex formed by the thrombin-binding aptamer (TBA, GGTTGGTGTGGTTGG). The signature blocks in the nanopore revealed that the G-quadruplex formation is cation-selective. The selectivity sequence is K+ < NH4+ ∼ Ba2+ < Cs+ ∼ Na+ < Li+, and G-quadruplex was not detected in Mg2+ and Ca2+. Ba2+ can form a long-lived G-quadruplex with TBA. However, the capability is affected by the cation-DNA interaction. The cation-selective formation of the G-quadruplex is correlated with the G-quadruplex volume, which varies with cation species. The high formation capability of the K+-induced G-quadruplex is contributed largely by the slow unfolding reaction. Although the Na+- and Li+-quadruplexes feature similar equilibrium properties, they undergo radically different pathways. The Na+-quadruplex folds and unfolds most rapidly, while the Li+-quadruplex performs both reactions at the slowest rates. Understanding these ion-regulated properties of oligonucleotides is beneficial for constructing fine-tuned biosensors and nano-structures. The methodology in this work can be used for studying other quadruplexes and protein-aptamer interactions.
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