Protoberberines represent a structural class of organic cations that induce topoisomerase I-mediated DNA cleavage, a behavior termed topoisomerase I poisoning. We have employed a broad range of biophysical, biochemical, and computer modeling techniques to characterize and cross-correlate the DNA- binding and topoisomerase poisoning properties of four protoberberine analogues that differ with respect to the substituents on their A- and/or D- rings. Our data reveal the following significant features: (i) The binding of the four protoberberines unwinds duplex DNA by approximately 11°, an observation consistent with an intercalative mode of interaction. (ii) Enthalpically favorable interactions, such as stacking interactions between the intercalated ligand and the neighboring base pairs, provide <50% of the thermodynamic driving force for the complexation of the protoberberines to duplex DNA. Computer modeling studies on protoberberine-DNA complexes suggest that only rings C and D intercalate into the host DNA helix, while rings A and B protrude out of the helix interior into the minor groove. (iii) All four protoberberine analogues are topoisomerase I-specific poisons, exhibiting little or no topoisomerase II poisoning activity. (iv) Modifications of the D-ring influence both DNA binding and topoisomerase I poisoning properties. Specifically, transference of a methoxy substituent from the 11- to the 9-position diminishes both DNA binding affinity and topoisomerase I poisoning activity, an observation suggesting that DNA binding is important in the poisoning of topoisomerase I by protoberberines. (v) Modifications of the A-ring have a negligible impact on DNA binding affinity, while exerting a profound influence on topoisomerase I poisoning activity. Specifically, protoberberine analogues containing either 2,3- dimethoxy; 3,4-dimethoxy; or 3,4-methylenedioxy substituents all bind DNA with a similar affinity. By contrast, these analogues exhibit markedly different topoisomerase I poisoning activities, with these activities following the hierarchy: 3,4-methylenedioxy > 2,3-dimethoxy >> 3,4-dimethoxy. These differences in topoisomerase I poisoning activity may reflect the differing abilities of the analogues to interact with specific functionalities on the enzyme, thereby stabilizing the enzyme in its cleavable state. In the aggregate, our results are consistent with a mechanistic model in which both ligand-DNA and ligand-enzyme interactions are important for the poisoning of topoisomerase I by protoberberines, with the DNA-directed interactions involving ring D and the enzyme-directed interactions involving ring A. It is reasonable to suggest that the poisoning of topoisomerase I by a broad range of other naturally occurring and synthetic ligands may entail a similar mechanism.
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