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Machine learning guided aptamer discovery

Ali Bashir
Geoff Davis
Michelle Therese Dimon
Qin Yang
Scott Ferguson
Zan Armstrong
Nature Communications (2021)
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Aptamers are discovered by searching a large library for sequences with desirable binding properties. These libraries, however, are physically constrained to a fraction of the theoretical sequence space and limited to sampling strategies that are easy to scale. Integrating machine learning could enable identification of high-performing aptamers across this unexplored fitness landscape. We employed particle display (PD) to partition aptamers by affinity and trained neural network models to improve physically-derived aptamers and predict affinity in silico. These predictions were used to locally improve physically derived aptamers as well as identify completely novel, high-affinity aptamers de novo. We experimentally validated the predictions, improving aptamer candidate designs at a rate 10-fold higher than random perturbation, and generating novel aptamers at a rate 448-fold higher than PD alone. We characterized the explanatory power of the models globally and locally and showed successful sequence truncation while maintaining affinity. This work combines machine learning and physical discovery, uses principles that are widely applicable to other display technologies, and provides a path forward for better diagnostic and therapeutic agents.