WVU researchers have discovered a way to view synthetic DNA at an atomic level, which could ultimately lead to potential solutions for medical diagnoses and treatments. (WVU Graphic/Aaron Robart)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) – West Virginia University researchers have learned how to see synthetic DNA at the atomic level, which WVU Today says could open new avenues in medicine.
The breakthrough, part of a project funded by a Ralph E. Powe Jr. Faculty Enhancement Award, allows researchers to understand how synthetic DNA, known as DNAzymes, can change the structure and catalysis, the process of making a reaction, without changing the DNA itself.
DNAzymes are created in a lab and “artificially engineered” to perform various functions, according to WVU Today.
“Typically, we think of DNA as inert, serving as the storage unit for our genetic information,” said Aaron Robart, an associate professor in the WVU School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine and the project’s principal investigator. “However, some types of DNA have been developed in the laboratory that defy conventional rules. These DNAs can fold into complex shapes, enabling them to perform remarkable reactions.
According to Robart, with refinement, the findings could be used in the treatment of diseases such as retinal degeneration and cancer.
“This is only, perhaps the third example, that the DNA that gives all these applications their power provides insights at the detailed atomic level into how chemically active DNA promotes their unique functions,” Robart said. “Atomic details give us a long-sought road map to start building and improving a technology that will be broadly applicable to health and diagnostics.”
The researchers used X-ray crystallography, which crystallizes DNAzymes and then shoots them with super-powered X-rays, revealing the atomic structure of DNA. Robart and his lab students, Evan Kramer of Lake Ann, Michigan, Sarah Starkovic of Cameron, and Bekah Avi of Martinsburg, did this with the help of the Advanced Photon Source at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago.
The researchers saw a structure with small arms that attach to complementary sequences like Velcro.
“These DNAs can act as molecular scissors with precise specificities for cutting RNA or DNA, or they can act as glue,” Robart said. “Say you have a mutated gene that causes disease, we can deliver this DNA into cells, and it can get rid of all kinds of messages that cause proteins that lead to disease.”
Researchers are now looking for DNAzyme capture techniques to catch them “at different stages of their activity,” as well as new ways to implement them in therapy, WVU TODAY said.
“It’s like we’re making an old-school animated molecular flipbook,” Robart said. “This level of detail is used to understand how to improve, target and manage their activity. It is just one of hundreds of different types of DNAzymes, each with its own unique properties that beg to be applied to topics related to human health.
Findings for the project Published in the journal Communications Chemistry.