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DNA is not merely a combination of four genetic codes, namely A, T, C, and G. It also contains minor modifications that play crucial roles throughout biology. For example, the fifth DNA base, 5-methylcytosine (5-mC), which accounts for ∼1% of all the nucleotides in mammalian genomic DNA, is a vital epigenetic mark. It impacts a broad range of biological functions, from development to cancer. Recently, an oxidized form of 5-methylcytosine, 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5-hmC), was found to constitute the sixth base in the mammalian genome; it was believed to be another crucial epigenetic mark. Unfortunately, further study of this newly discovered DNA base modification has been hampered by inadequate detection and sequencing methods, because current techniques fail to differentiate 5-hmC from 5-mC. The immediate challenge, therefore, is to develop robust methods for ascertaining the positions of 5-hmC within the mammalian genome. In this Account, we describe our development of the first bioorthogonal, selective labeling of 5-hmC to specifically address this challenge. We utilize β-glucosyltransferase (βGT) to transfer an azide-modified glucose onto 5-hmC in genomic DNA. The azide moiety enables further bioorthogonal click chemistry to install a biotin group, which allows for detection, affinity enrichment, and, most importantly, deep sequencing of the 5-hmC-containing DNA. With this highly effective and selective method, we revealed the first genome-wide distribution of 5-hmC in the mouse genome and began to shed further light on the biology of 5-hmC. The strategy lays the foundation for developing high-throughput, single-base-resolution sequencing methods for 5-hmC in mammalian genomes in the future. DNA and RNA are not static inside cells. They interact with protein and other DNA and RNA in fundamental biological processes such as replication, transcription, translation, and DNA and RNA modification and repair. The ability to investigate these interactions will also be enhanced by developing and utilizing bioorthogonal probes. We have chosen the photoreactive diazirine photophore as a bioorthogonal moiety to develop nucleic acid probes. The small size and unique photo-cross-linking activity of diazirine enabled us to develop a series of novel cross-linking probes to streamline the study of protein-nucleic acid and nucleic acid-nucleic acid interactions. In the second half of this Account, we highlight a few examples of these probes.

Original publication




Journal article


Acc Chem Res

Publication Date





709 - 717


5-Methylcytosine, Animals, Azides, Biotin, Cell Line, Click Chemistry, Cross-Linking Reagents, Cytosine, DNA, DNA Probes, Diazomethane, Genome, Glucosyltransferases, Humans, Mice, Streptavidin, Ultraviolet Rays