Oligonucleotide-directed triple helix formation in the purine motif involves the binding of guanine-rich oligonucleotides to duplex DNA. Although this approach has been proposed for in vivo gene inhibition, triple helix formation by guanine-rich oligonucleotides is severely inhibited by physiological concentrations of certain monovalent cations (M+), especially K+. To clarify the mechanism of this inhibition, electrophoretic gel mobility shift titrations were performed to analyze the formation and stability of a purine motif triple helix in the presence of M+ and to monitor oligonucleotide aggregation under these conditions. M+ inhibition of triplex formation exhibited a concentration and ionic radius dependence that correlates with the ability of M+ to stabilize guanine quartet structures. In the presence of inhibitory [M+], guanine-rich oligonucleotides formed aggregates having characteristics consistent with the involvement of guanine quartets. The inhibitory effects of K+ on triplex formation could not be reversed by addition of the physiological polyamines spermidine3+ or spermine4+. M+ reduced the equilibrium concentration of the triplex primarily by decreasing the rate of triplex formation, but M+ also caused a detectable increase in the rate of triplex dissociation. Together, these results suggest that triplex inhibition under physiological ionic conditions is caused by competing equilibria wherein guanine-rich oligonucleotides form aggregates involving guanine quartets. Approaches to destabilizing aggregates of guanine-rich oligonucleotides under physiological conditions will be required before in vivo applications can be realistically considered.
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