Nucleic acid assembly, polymerization, and ligand binding
Engelhart, Aaron Edward
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In the past 30 years, the discovery of capabilities of nucleic acids far beyond their well-known information-bearing capacity has profoundly influenced our understanding of these polymers. The discovery by the Cech and Altman labs that nucleic acids could perform catalytic functions, coupled with the Gold and Szostak groups’ demonstration of the de novo evolution of nucleic acids that bind arbitrary ligands, has resulted in a proliferation of newfound roles for these molecules. Nucleic acids have found utility in both engineered systems, such as aptamer therapeutics, as well as in newly appreciated roles in extant organisms, such as riboswitches. As a result of these discoveries, many have pondered the potential importance of the dual (catalytic and informational) roles of nucleic acids in early evolution. A high-yielding synthetic route for the nonenzymatic polymerization of nucleic acids, based on the aqueous self-assembly of their components, would provide a powerful tool in nucleic acid chemistry, with potential utility in prebiotic and contemporary nucleic acid systems alike – however, such a route remains elusive. In this thesis, I describe several steps towards such a synthetic route. In these systems, a nucleic-acid binding ligand drives the assembly of short DNA and RNA duplexes, promoting the production of long nucleic acid polymers, while suppressing the production of short, cyclic species. Additionally, the use of a reversible covalent linkage allows for the production of long polymers, as well as the incorporation of previously cyclized products into these polymers. I also report several explorations of novel base pairings, nucleic acid-ligand interactions, and nucleic acid-ion interactions that have informed our studies of self-assembling nucleic acid systems.