Theses Doctoral

Single-molecule studies of nucleic acid dynamics using carbon nanotube-based field-effect transistors

Daly, Nathan Scott

This thesis describes the development and implementation of single-molecule carbon nanotube-based field-effect transistors (smFETs) for studies of nucleic acid dynamics. Single-molecule techniques, most notably fluorescence resonance energy transfer (smFRET) and single-molecule force spectroscopy, have been employed to investigate biomolecular dynamics due to their ability to directly observe discrete, rare events, as well as to characterize structural motions in a diverse ensemble. However, these techniques are hampered by difficulties in measuring millisecond-scale dynamics, such as base pair rearrangements, as well as the inability to observe unperturbed individual molecules for long times. Alternatively, smFETs allow observation of the dynamics of charged biomolecules, such as charged amino acids in proteins or the phosphate groups of nucleic acid backbones, with microsecond temporal resolution. Structural rearrangements of a single charged molecule on the surface of a single-walled carbon nanotube (CNT) transistor can lead to measureable fluctuations in conductance through the CNT. Thus, this technique allows for simultaneous characterization of fast events and, due to the label-free and minimally-invasive nature of smFET technology, the quantification of how the frequency of these events change over long time-scales.
A portion of this work describes smFET fabrication, focusing on improvements to the functionalization method, a critical step to reliably generate individual attachment sites on the CNT for subsequent single-molecule studies. A new synthetic chemistry approach is performed in ultraminiaturized, nanofabricated reaction chambers; using lithographically-defined nanowells, single-point attachments are achieved on hundreds of individual carbon nanotube transistors, providing robust statistics and unprecedented spatial control in adduct positioning. Each device acts as a sensor to detect, in real-time and through quantized changes in conductance, single-point functionalization of the nanotube, as well as consecutive chemical reactions and subsequent molecular interactions molecular conformational changes.
In particular, this thesis is focused on studying the dynamics of nucleic acids using smFET technology. First, the smFET technique presented is verified by studying the thermodynamics and kinetics of DNA hybridization, the results of which compare favorably both with predicted values and previous smFET studies using alternative device architectures. Next, the reversible folding of a single-stranded telomeric DNA sequence known to form a G-quadruplex structure is studied, revealing the characteristic increased stability of the G-quadruplex structure in the presence of potassium ions relative to sodium ions. Finally, smFET studies of the dynamics of the adenine-sensing pbuE riboswitch aptamer found in Bacillus subtilis are discussed. These results demonstrate how long-lived, ligand-dependent intermediates form at a base-pair level and suggest that these intermediates have consequences for riboswitch-regulation by adenine binding to the aptamer. With the increased time resolution of smFET technology, this work has achieved the first observation of RNA zipping and unzipping at the single-molecule level, as well as label-free observations of the effects of a three-way junction motif on helix zipping and unzipping.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Gonzalez, Jr., Ruben L.
Nuckolls, Colin P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 6, 2017