Aptamers are functional nucleic acids that bind to a range of targets (small molecules, proteins or cells) with a high affinity and specificity. Chemically-modified aptamers are of interest because the incorporation of novel nucleobase components can enhance aptamer binding to target proteins, while fluorescent base analogues permit the design of functional aptasensors that signal target binding. However, since optimally modified nucleoside designs have yet to be identified, information about how to fine tune aptamer stability and target binding affinity is required. The present work uses molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to investigate modifications to the prototypical thrombin-binding aptamer (TBA), which is a 15-mer DNA sequence that folds into a G-quadruplex structure connected by two TT loops and one TGT loop. Specifically, we modeled a previously synthesized thymine (T) analog, namely 5-furyl-2′-deoxyuridine (5FurU), into each of the six aptamer locations occupied by a thymine base in the TT or TGT loops of unbound and thrombin bound TBA. This modification and aptamer combination were chosen as a proof-of-principle because previous experimental studies have shown that TBA displays emissive sensitivity to target binding based on the local environment polarity at different 5FurU modification sites. Our simulations reveal that the chemically-modified base imparts noticeable structural changes to the aptamer without affecting the global conformation. Depending on the modification site, 5FurU performance is altered due to changes in the local environment, including the modification site structural dynamics, degree of solvent exposure, stacking with neighboring bases, and interactions with thrombin. Most importantly, these changes directly correlate with the experimentally-observed differences in the stability, binding affinity and emissive response of the modified aptamers. Therefore, the computational protocols implemented in the present work can be used in subsequent studies in a predictive way to aid the fine tuning of aptamer target recognition for use as biosensors (aptasensors) and/or therapeutics.
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