Thermoreversible Control of Nucleic Acid Structure and Function with Glyoxal Caging

Steve D. Knutson, Aimee A. Sanford, Colin S. Swenson, Megan M. Korn, Brea A. Manuel, Jennifer M. Heemstra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Controlling the structure and activity of nucleic acids dramatically expands their potential for application in therapeutics, biosensing, nanotechnology, and biocomputing. Several methods have been developed to impart responsiveness of DNA and RNA to small-molecule and light-based stimuli. However, heat-triggered control of nucleic acids has remained largely unexplored, leaving a significant gap in responsive nucleic acid technology. Moreover, current technologies have been limited to natural nucleic acids and are often incompatible with polymerase-generated sequences. Here we show that glyoxal, a well-characterized compound that covalently attaches to the Watson-Crick-Franklin face of several nucleobases, addresses these limitations by thermoreversibly modulating the structure and activity of virtually any nucleic acid scaffold. Using a variety of DNA and RNA constructs, we demonstrate that glyoxal modification is easily installed and potently disrupts nucleic acid structure and function. We also characterize the kinetics of decaging and show that activity can be restored via tunable thermal removal of glyoxal adducts under a variety of conditions. We further illustrate the versatility of this approach by reversibly caging a 2′-O-methylated RNA aptamer as well as synthetic threose nucleic acid (TNA) and peptide nucleic acid (PNA) scaffolds. Glyoxal caging can also be used to reversibly disrupt enzyme-nucleic acid interactions, and we show that caging of guide RNA allows for tunable and reversible control over CRISPR-Cas9 activity. We also demonstrate glyoxal caging as an effective method for enhancing PCR specificity, and we cage a biostable antisense oligonucleotide for time-release activation and titration of gene expression in living cells. Together, glyoxalation is a straightforward and scarless method for imparting reversible thermal responsiveness to theoretically any nucleic acid architecture, addressing a significant need in synthetic biology and offering a versatile new tool for constructing programmable nucleic acid components in medicine, nanotechnology, and biocomputing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17766-17781
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number41
StatePublished - Oct 14 2020


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