Efficient strategies for the ultrasensitive imaging of gene expression in living cells are essential in chemistry and cell biology. Here, we report a novel and efficient enzyme-free dual signal amplification strategy for live cell mRNA imaging by using a smart nucleic acid hairpin-based nanosystem. This nanosystem consists of a ZnO nanoparticle core, an interlayer of polydopamine and an outer layer of four hairpin DNA (hpDNA) probes. Such a core-shell nanosystem facilitates the cellular uptake of molecular hairpin payloads, protects them from nuclease digestion, and delivers them into the cytoplasm by the acid-triggered dissolution of the ZnO core. In the presence of target mRNA, the released hpDNA probes self-assemble via HCR into wire-shaped active DNAzymes that catalyze the generation of a fluorescence signal. The target-initiated HCR events and DNAzyme cascades offer efficient dual amplification and enable the ultrasensitive detection of mRNA with a femtomolar detection limit. Live cell assays show an intense fluorescence response from a tumor-related biomarker survivin mRNA only in tumor cells untreated with a survivin expression repressor YM155, but not in normal cells. The developed nanosystem provides a potential platform for the amplified imaging of low-abundance disease-related biomarkers in live cells.
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