Biochemists Switch DNA Functions on and Off Using Light

Biochemists use protein engineering to transfer photocaging groups to DNA.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the basis of life on earth. The function of DNA is to store all the genetic information, which an organism needs to develop, function and reproduce. It is essentially a biological instruction manual found in every cell.

Biochemists at the University of Münster have now developed a strategy for controlling the biological functions of DNA with the aid of light. This enables researchers to better understand and control the different processes which take place in the cell – for example epigenetics, the key chemical change and regulatory lever in DNA.

The results have been published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

Background and methodology

The cell’s functions depend on special molecules, the enzymes. Enzymes are proteins, which carry out chemical reactions in the cell. They help to synthesize metabolic products, make copies of the DNA molecules, convert energy for the cell’s activities, change DNA epigenetically and break down certain molecules.

A team of researchers headed by Prof. Andrea Rentmeister from the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Münster used a so-called enzymatic cascade reaction in order to understand and track these functions better. This sequence of successive reaction steps involving different enzymes makes it possible to transfer so-called photocaging groups – chemical groups, which can be removed by means of irradiation with light – to DNA. Previously, studies had shown that only small residues (small modifications such as methyl groups) could be transferred very selectively to DNA, RNA (ribonucleic acid) or proteins.

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