Disrupting ultrashort nucleic acid duplex with mechanical force

Speaker: Kevin Whitley

Department: University of Illionois at Urbana -Champain

Subject: Disrupting ultrashort nucleic acid duplex with mechanical force

Location: Bionanoscience Department, TU Delft

Date: 30-06-2017

Author: Mirte Golverdingen

Kevin Whitley did research to the hybridization kinetics of DNA under force. He tried to understand the transition state of nucleic acid hybridization. Hybridization is used for gene manipulation and targeting for DNA nanomachines, tweezers and bipadal walkers. Short strands (about 10 bp) show a ‘all of nothing’ behavior when hybridizing. Fist one or two base pairs bind and then all base pairs bind without stable intermediates. This describes a two-state reaction in a schematic energy landscape. The kinetics of any of these states is determined by the transition state between them. Whitley searched for the transition state between the bound and the unbound DNA.

To research the hybridization kinetics of the DNA the end-to-end extension of the DNA was researched. This is the length of the top of the energy to the bottom of the energy where the DNA is hybridized. Bell’s equation describes the energy barrier between the end-to-end extension. So, by measuring the rates of the Bell’s function you can calculate the end-to-end distance.

Whitley measured the hybridization rates by using optical beads that are bound to the DNA by double stranded handles and with a 9 nucleotides long middle strand. This short part is the binding site for short DNA. The distance between the two beads was approximately one. By using a flow chamber Whitley was able to look at oligo that were free in solution. He was able to measure the koff and kon rate under a constant amount of force. In this way, he could measure the moment a ss DNA oligomer binds to the middle strand by measuring the position of the bead. The ds DNA is stiffer than ss DNA, and therefore the position of the bead changes. By using this method, Whitley could measure the difference between ss and ds DNA up until a force of 12 pN.

By using Fleezers, which is a combination between fluorescence and optical tweezers, Whitley was able to label the oligomer with a fluorophore (see figure 1). In this way, also forces lower than 12 pN can be measured. Again, they calculated the binding and unbinding rates of the DNA. While the unbinding rate of the DNA goes up linearly when the force increases, the binding rate also goes up, however, not linearly. When the oligomer becomes longer, the unbinding rate goes down. For the binding rate no dependence on the length of the oligomer can be found.


Figure 1: Measurement of single-oligonucleotide hybridization kinetics under force. (A) Schematic of the hybridization assay (not to scale). An engineered DNA molecule (red) containing a short, central ssDNA region flanked by long double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) handles is held under constant force by polystyrene beads (grey spheres) held in optical traps (orange cones). A fluorescence excitation laser (green cone) is focused on the central ssDNA region. Short oligonucleotides (blue) labeled with a Cy3 fluorophore at the 3΄ end (green disk) bind and unbind to the complementary ssDNA sequence in the center of the tethered DNA. The binding and unbinding is observed by the fluorescence emitted from the attached fluorophores.

Adapted from: Kevin D. Whitley, Matthew J. Comstock, Yann R. Chemla; Elasticity of the transition state for oligonucleotide hybridization. Nucleic Acids Res 2017; 45 (2): 547-555. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkw1173

When looking at Bell’s equation, the binding rate should be an exponential force-dependence, however, non-exponential behavior is reproducible across other conditions. The end-to-end distance is therefore not constant, and the Bells’ equation changes so an integral is used instead.  By calculating the unbound and bound extension by using the worm like chain model for double stranded DNA they were able to calculate the end-to-end extension. In this way, they also obtained the persistence length and contour length of the end-to-end extensions. He repeated these calculation for all different lengths of oligomers. The transitions state persistence length is comparable to ssDNA, however it is a bit stiffer.

The transition state is probably no random process, as simple polymer estimations predict a low probability of spontaneous alignments. The single strand that is a bit stiffer, as measured in the transition state, this could correspond to prearranging of the strands, prior to nucleation. Some enzymes can pre-organize mRNA so the transition state energy barrier becomes lower. Moreover, fast target finding is possible when there are preorganized bases by enzymes. In this way, they can speed hybridization up by pre-paying the entropy penalty.

Whitley told a clear story on obtaining the end-to-end distance of the DNA hybridization translation state. The combination of Optical Tweezers and fluorescence was very cool. Moreover, using the mathematics in combination with the biology inspired me as Nanobiology student.