Stimuli-responsive DNA binding by synthetic systems

Jessica Rodriguez, Jesús Mosquera, Soraya Learte-Aymamı́, M. Eugenio Vázquez, José Luis Mascareñas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


DNA is the molecule responsible for the storage and transmission of the genetic information in living organisms. The expression of this information is highly regulated. In eukaryotes, it is achieved mainly at the transcription level thanks to specialized proteins called transcription factors (TFs) that recognize specific DNA sequences, thereby promoting or inhibiting the transcription of particular genes. In many cases, TFs are present in the cell in an inactive form but become active in response to an external signal, which might modify their localization and DNA binding properties or modulate their interactions with the rest of the transcriptional machinery. As a result of the crucial role of TFs, the design of synthetic peptides or miniproteins that can emulate their DNA binding properties and eventually respond to external stimuli is of obvious interest. On the other hand, although the B-form double helix is the most common DNA secondary structure, it is not the only one with an essential biological function. Guanine quadruplexes (GQs) have received considerable attention due to their critical role in the regulation of gene expression, which is usually associated with a change in the GQ conformation. Thus, the development of GQ probes whose properties can be controlled using external signals is also of significant relevance.

In this Account, we present a summary of the recent efforts toward the development of stimuli-responsive synthetic DNA binders with a particular emphasis on our own contributions. We first introduce the structure of B and GQ DNAs, and some of the main factors underlying their selective recognition. We then discuss some of the different approaches used for the design of stimulus-mediated DNA binders. We have organized our discussion according to whether the interaction takes place with duplex or guanine quadruplex DNAs, and each section is divided according to the nature of the stimulus (i.e., physical or chemical). Regarding physical stimuli, light (through the incorporation of photolabile protecting groups or photoisomerizable agents) is the most common input for the activation/deactivation of DNA binding events. With respect to chemical signals, the use of metals (through the incorporation of metal-coordinating groups in the DNA binding agent) has allowed the development of a wide range of stimuli-responsive DNA binders. More recently, redox-based systems have also been used to control DNA interactions.

This Account ends with a “Conclusions and Outlook” section highlighting some of the general lessons that have been learned and future directions toward further advancing the field.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2286-2298
Number of pages13
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number10
Early online date30 Sep 2020
Publication statusPublished - 20 Oct 2020


  • circular dichroism
  • coordination complexes
  • DNA
  • G-quadruplexes
  • isomerism
  • metals
  • oxidation-reduction
  • protein binding


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