Chemists use modified DNA nucleotides to create new materials

Diagram of enzyme (orange) encapsulating 2′-azido-DNA/DNA hydrogel. Credit: Romesberg Lab

DNA evolved to store genetic information, but in principle this special, chain-like molecule can also be adapted to make new materials. Chemists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have now published an important demonstration of this repurposing of DNA to create new substances with possible medical applications.


TSRI’s Floyd Romesberg and Tingjian Chen, in a study published online in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, showed that they could make several potentially valuable chemical modifications to DNA nucleotides and produce useful quantities of the modified DNA. The chemists demonstrated their new approach by making a DNA-based, water-absorbing hydrogel that ultimately may have multiple medical and scientific uses.

“DNA has some unique properties as a material, and with this new ability to modify it and replicate it like normal DNA, we can really begin to explore some interesting potential applications,” said Romesberg, a professor of chemistry at TSRI.

Romesberg’s laboratory over the past decade has helped pioneer methods for making modified DNA, with the ultimate goal of developing valuable new medicines, probes and materials—even artificial life forms. The team reached an important milestone last year with a feat reported in Nature Chemistry: the development of an artificial DNA polymerase enzyme that can make copies of modified DNA, much as normal DNA polymerases replicate normal DNA.

The DNA modifications tested in that study involved only the attachment of fluorine (F) or methoxy (O-CH3) moieties to the sugar backbone of DNA nucleotides—modifications that in principle would improve the properties of DNA-based drugs. In the new study, Chen and Romesberg…

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