As all organic chemists who follow the literature know, over the last few years there’s been a strong swell of papers using Barry Sharpless’s “click chemistry” triazole-forming reactions. These reaction let you form five-membered triazole rings from two not-very-reactive partners, an azide and an acetylene, and people have been putting them to all kinds of uses, from the trivial to the very interesting indeed.
In the former category are papers that boil down to “We made triazoles from some acetylenes and azides that no one else has gotten around to using yet, and here they are, for some reason”. There are fewer of those publications than there were a couple of years ago, but they’re still out there. For its part, the latter (interesting) category is really all over the place, from in vivo biological applications to nanotechnology and materials science.
One recent paper in Organic Letters which was called to my attention starts off looking as if it’s going to be another bit of flotsam from the first group, but by the end it’s a very different thing indeed. The authors (from the Isobe group at Tohoku University in Japan, with collaborators from Tokyo) have made an analog of thymine, the T in the genetic code, where the 2-deoxyribose part has both an azide and an acetylene built onto it.
So far, so good, and at one point you probably could have gotten a paper out of things right there – let ‘em rip to make a few poly-triazole things and send off the manuscript. But this is a more complete piece of work. For one thing, they’ve made sure that their acetylenes can have removable silyl groups on them. That lets you turn their click reactivity on and off, since the copper-catalyzed reaction needs a free alkyne out there. So starting from a resin-supported sugar, they did one triazole click reaction after another in a controlled fashion – it took some messing around with the conditions, but they worked it out pretty smoothly.
And since the acetylene was at the 5 position of the sugar, and the azide was at the 3, they built a sort of poly-T oligonucleotide – but one that’s linked together by triazoles where instead of the phosphate groups found in DNA. People have, of course, made all sorts of DNA analogs, with all sorts of replacements for the phosphates, but they vary in how well they mimic the real thing. Startlingly, when they took a 10-mer of their “TL-DNA” (triazole-linked) and exposed it to a complementary 10-residue strand of good ol' poly-A DNA, the two zipped right up. In fact, the resulting helix seems to be significantly stronger than native DNA, as measured by a large increase in melting point. (That's their molecular model of the complex below left).
Well, after reading this paper, my first thought was that it might eventually make me eat some of my other words. Because just last week I was saying things about the prospects for nucleic acid therapies (RNAi, antisense) - mean, horrible, nasty things, according to a few of the comments that piled up, about how these might be rather hard to implement. But when I saw the end of this paper, the first thing that popped into my head was "stable high-affinity antisense DNA backbone. Holy cow". I assume that this also crossed the minds of the authors, and of some of the paper's other readers. Given the potential of the field, I would also assume that eventually we'll see that idea put to a test. It's a long way from being something that works, but it sure looks like a good thing to take a look at, doesn't it?