Many biological systems employ allosteric regulatory mechanisms, which offer a powerful means of directly linking a specific binding event to a wide spectrum of molecular functionalities. There is considerable interest in generating synthetic allosteric regulators that can perform useful molecular functions for applications in diagnostics, imaging and targeted therapies, but generating such molecules through either rational design or directed evolution has proven exceptionally challenging. To address this need, we present an in vitro selection strategy for generating conformation-switching DNA nanostructures that selectively release a small-molecule payload in response to binding of a specific trigger molecule. As an exemplar, we have generated a DNA nanostructure that hybridizes with a separate ‘cargo strand’ containing an abasic site. This abasic site stably sequesters a fluorescent cargo molecule in an inactive state until the DNA nanostructure encounters an ATP trigger molecule. This ATP trigger causes the nanostructure to release the cargo strand, thereby liberating the fluorescent payload and generating a detectable fluorescent readout. Our DNA nanostructure is highly sensitive, with an EC50 of 30 μM, and highly specific, releasing its payload in response to ATP but not to other chemically similar nucleotide triphosphates. We believe that this selection approach could be generalized to generate synthetic nanostructures capable of selective and controlled release of other small-molecule cargos in response to a variety of triggers, for both research and clinical applications.