Theoretical insights into the effect of size and substitution patterns of azobenzene derivatives on the DNA G-quadruplex†
Introducing photoswitches into the DNA G-quadruplex provides excellent opportunities to control folding and unfolding of these assemblies, demonstrating their potential in the development of novel nanodevices with medical and nanotechnology applications. Using a quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics (QM/MM) scheme, we carried out a series of simulations to identify the effect of the size and substitution patterns of three azobenzene derivatives (AZ1, AZ2 and AZ3) on the excitation energies of the two lowest excited states of the smallest photoswitchable G-quadruplex reported to date. We demonstrated that the size and the substitution pattern do not affect the ultrafast cis–trans photoiomerization mechanism of the azobenzene derivatives significantly, in agreement with the experiment. However, molecular dynamics simulations revealed that while AZ2 and AZ3 G-quadruplexes are structurally stable during the simulations, the AZ1 G-quadruplex undergoes larger structural changes and shows two ground state populations that differ in the azobenzene backbone adopting two different conformations. AZ1, with para–para substitution pattern, provides more flexibility to the whole G-quadruplex structure compared to AZ2 and AZ3, and can thus facilitate the photoisomerization reaction between a nonpolymorphic, stacked, tetramolecular G-quadruplex and an unstructured state after trans–cis isomerization occurring in a longer time dynamics, in agreement with the experimental findings. The QM/MM simulations of the absorption spectra indicated that the thermal fluctuation plays a more crucial role in the main absorption band of the azobenzene derivatives than the inclusion of the G-quadruplex, implying that the influence of the G-quadruplex environment is minimal. We propose that the latter is attributed to the position of the azobenzene linkers in the G-quadruplexes, i.e. the edgewise loops containing the azobenzene moieties that are located above the G-quartets, not being fully embedded inside or involved in the stacked structure. Our theoretical findings provide support to a recent study of the photoresponsive formation of photoswitchable G-quadruplex motifs.