Nucleic acids are the building blocks of life. They direct the mechanisms of every living organism on this planet, from the simplest bacteria to the most complex mammals. At the heart of these biomolecules are nucleotides, otherwise known as monomers. These foundational structures are composed of nitrogenous bases, a phosphate group, and a sugar molecule. Although the composition of nucleotides is quite simple, their functionality is what makes them remarkable. The discovery of how these nucleotides function led to the advent of modern genetics, and this would not have been possible without nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a technique used to study the interactions of biomolecules.
Fundamentally, nuclear magnetic resonance is a physical phenomenon where atomic nuclei respond to a magnetic field by absorbing and then re-emitting electromagnetic radiation. This absorption and re-emission are known as resonance, and the resulting signals contain information that can be used to infer and study the properties of the nuclei. In NMR spectroscopy of nucleic acids, radiofrequency pulses are applied to a sample containing nucleotides, and the resulting spectral lines are read and analyzed. The resulting spectra can be used to derive various properties of nucleotides such as their molecular structure or how they interact with various biomolecules.
In the realm of nucleic acids, NMR has enabled researchers to study their monomers in exquisite detail. For example, from the spectra obtained via NMR, the identity of individual atoms in nucleotides can be deduced, as well as their three-dimensional arrangement. This information is critical to piecing together the function of nucleotides in DNA replication, RNA transcription, and translation. Because of the precise and non-invasive nature of NMR, it is possible to study nucleic acids in their native form, even in complex organic mixtures such as within the cell.
Furthermore, NMR spectroscopy is used to shed light on interactions between nucleotides and other biomolecules, including proteins and drugs. For example, the study of the interaction of transcription factors with DNA sequence recognition is key to understanding cellular regulation. The use of NMR in this field has led to critical discoveries and, in turn, advances in pharmaceutical development.
The nucleotides that serve as the foundation for nucleic acids are composed of three simple parts: a nitrogenous base, a phosphate group, and a sugar molecule. As one of the simplest organic molecules, nucleotides serve many functions in living organisms, ranging from encoding genetic information to energy transfer and signaling. However, their most critical role in biology is their use as the building blocks of DNA and RNA, the genetic material of all living organisms.
A nitrogenous base is one of the three main components of a nucleotide and plays a crucial role in establishing the sequence and structure of nucleic acids. There are two types of nitrogenous bases that occur in nucleotides: purines (adenine and guanine) and pyrimidines (cytosine, thymine, and uracil). Adenine and guanine are purines, while cytosine, thymine, and uracil are pyrimidines. The structure of the nitrogenous base determines the complementary nature of base pairing in DNA, ultimately dictating the double helix structure of the molecule.
The phosphate group that forms another critical component of nucleotides has a negative charge, which makes it hydrophilic and able to interact with the surrounding aqueous environment. The phosphate group also plays a critical role in linking nucleotides together; the phosphodiester bond between adjacent nucleotides forms the backbone of nucleic acids, which gives them their shape, integrity, and stability.
Finally, the sugar moiety, which is either ribose or deoxyribose, provides an attachment point for the nitrogenous base and the phosphate group. Ribonucleotides, containing ribose sugar, are found in RNA, while deoxyribonucleotides with deoxyribose sugar are found in DNA. These two sugars differ by the presence or absence of the hydroxyl group at the 2’ position. This difference in structure has important implications for DNA’s stability and for the specific sets of enzymes used to repair, replicate, and modify the molecule.
In addition to their roles as the monomeric building blocks of nucleic acids, nucleotides also function as energy carriers in the cell. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a modified nucleotide, is a crucial molecule that carries energy within cells. ATP contains three phosphate groups attached to the ribose sugar moiety, a structure known as a triphosphate. The high-energy bond between the second and third phosphate in ATP is easily broken, creating a transfer of energy that fuels many biochemical processes in the cell.
Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has played a vital role in providing insight and understanding into the interactions that take place between nucleic acid monomers. The information derived from NMR can allow researchers to determine detail about the secondary structure of nucleic acids, including the bonding patterns and activities of the molecules that interact with these monomers. One area in which NMR has been particularly helpful is in the study of interstrand and intramolecular base pairing within nucleic acids.
In DNA, the primary mode of identifying base pairs is through complementary base pairing, where the A-T (adenine-thymine) and G-C (guanine-cytosine) pairs interact via hydrogen bonding. In contrast, RNA frequently folding into complex and distinct structures due to its single-stranded structure. The information derived from NMR in combination with computer modeling has enabled researchers to better understand the mechanism of these RNA structures’ formation.
Additionally, NMR spectroscopy has allowed for the accurate calculation of nucleic acid structural properties, including bond lengths and bond angles. These properties are essential in characterizing the structure of nucleic acid monomers and the bonds they participate in. Such measurements allow for the prediction of nucleic acid secondary structure, which helps in understanding the basic principles behind biomolecules’ DNA replication and RNA transcription.
Another key application of NMR in nucleic acid biology is the study of the interaction of small molecules and natural products with monomers. Many drugs interact with DNA, RNA, and proteins by binding specifically to these molecules’ specific sites, leading to biological effect. By utilizing NMR, drug researchers can locate the binding site of these molecules’ molecules and determine the minimal structural features that are required for specific interaction. This critical ability to determine structural features and affinity of drugs can lead to safer and more effective pharmaceuticals.
Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has evolved dramatically since its inception in the study of small molecules, peptides and proteins, and nucleic acids. Advanced in methodology, instrumentation and computing power have allowed for the development of several techniques that enable the study of the molecular properties of nucleic acid monomers in detail. Heteronuclear NMR is one such technique that has proved invaluable in the structural elucidation of nucleic acids.
Heteronuclear NMR in nucleic acid biology involves the observation of the chemical shift of nuclei other than hydrogen, primarily phosphorus and nitrogen atoms. In comparison to conventional homonuclear NMR techniques, the use of heteronuclear NMR has significant benefits, given that these elements are more sensitive, abundant, and chemically diverse. Also, heteronuclear NMR allows for correlations between the different atomic nuclei that make up a molecule.
One of the most important and informative applications of heteronuclear NMR spectroscopy is the study of DNA and RNA structural dynamics. This is typically done using ^31P NMR, which provides valuable insights into the phosphodiester backbone of nucleic acid monomers. The phosphodiester linker that binds nucleotides is crucial; it links the atoms of adjacent nucleotides in a chain and imparts structural rigidity upon the molecule. (^1H, ^31P) Heteronuclear correlation spectroscopy, in which the chemical information of two nuclei are measured simultaneously, can be used to derive the secondary structure of nucleic acids. This methodology allows researchers to better understand the influence of phosphodiester mutations on nucleic acid backbone dynamics and the regulatory properties of these molecules.
Another critical application of heteronuclear NMR in nucleic acid biology is in the study of the dynamics of protein and nucleic acid interactions. The structure of protein-nucleic acid complexes is essential in mediating various biological processes, including transcription and translation. Heterogeneous NMR enables researchers to observe the conformational changes that occur when biomolecules interact, giving insight into the interactions’ strength and reliability. Heteronuclear NMR spectroscopy has also led to a deep understanding of the mechanism underlying the sequence-specific recognition of DNA regulatory proteins, opening avenues for rational drug design.
As the technologies and techniques of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy continue to expand, the study of nucleic acid monomers has become more nuanced and complex. Multi-dimensional NMR is one such advanced technique that has been successfully applied to this field, making the study of molecular interactions at the atomic level possible’s higher resolution.
One of the significant advantages of multidimensional NMR spectroscopy is the ability to study biomolecules in a natural/native environment, allowing the study of molecular interactions in a dynamic state rather than in the static state observed in crystallography studies. In nucleic acid biology, two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) NMR spectroscopy techniques have been developed to study the interaction of nucleic acid monomers with various biomolecules with higher resolution than single-dimension techniques.
2D NMR Spectroscopy is a powerful tool for determining the intricate structures of large molecules, even when complex structural transformations can occur under mild solution conditions. 2D-NOESY (Nuclear Overhauser Effect Spectroscopy) and 2D-ROESY (Rotationally-optimized Nuclear Overhauser Effect Spectroscopy) are two prominent 2D NMR methods used in nucleic acid structural elucidation.
On the other hand, 3D NMR techniques offer advantages over 2D NMR spectroscopy by providing higher resolution, fewer artifacts, and greater accuracy about signal identification. In these methods, in addition to three dimensions of frequency, a third (and occasionally a fourth) time dimension is added. 3D-TOCSY (Total Correlation Spectroscopy) is one example of this approach used extensively in the study of nucleic acids.
Multi-dimensional NMR has been critical in the determination of more complex nucleic acid structures, such as non-canonical interactions, pseudoknots, and other tertiary structures. Additionally, the technique has also been used to study nucleic acid-lipid, protein-nucleic acid, and small molecule-nucleic acid interactions.
Multi-dimensional NMR has significant potential in the development of more effective antiviral agents. A significant example of this is the study of 3D RNA structure in HIV-1, which has led to the development of antivirals that target the specific conformation of the virus. Multiple NMR methods, including 2D-ROESY, 2D-NOESY, 2D-TOCSY, and 3D-TOCSY spectroscopy, have been used in this endeavor. Multi-dimensional NMR methods have improved the effectiveness of computer design tools and screening methods in the design of new antivirals targeted against RNA viral molecules.
Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has enabled researchers to learn more about the fundamental workings of biological molecules, including nucleic acid monomers, the building blocks of DNA and RNA. As the technology of NMR continues to advance, new methods and applications are emerging, making it possible to study ever more complex and dynamic biological systems.
One area of research that stands to benefit greatly from the continued development of NMR methods in the study of nucleic acids is that of structural genomics. This field focuses on using the amino acid sequences coded by nucleic acids to determine and describe three-dimensional protein structure determinations. Given the enormous numbers of protein-ligand and protein-protein interactions that occur in living organisms, it is critical to understanding how these interactions work in the biological system.
One such methodology utilizing NMR is protein-directed NMR spectroscopy or RDC (Residual Dipolar Coupling)-based Structural Genomics, which relies on the knowledge of the amino acid sequence encoded by nucleic acids. Structural bioinformatics applications, such as the Rosetta program, can be used to create 3D models that can be evaluated using the resulting NMR data. This approach offers a way to develop structural models for proteins that are difficult to study using other methods of structural determination.