The Journal of Physical Chemistry B, 2019, vol 123, 42, pp. 8861-8871
One of the most remarkable examples of cell-penetrating peptides (CPPs) is Penetratin, a 16-mer fragment derived from the Drosophila Antennapedia homeobox. Understanding the structure of Penetratin/DNA complexes is a key factor for the successful design of new vectors for gene delivery and may assist in optimizing molecular carriers based on CPPs. Herein, we present a comprehensive study on the nanoscale structure of noncovalent complexes formed between Penetratin and DNA. The strong cationic nature of the peptide makes it a very efficient agent for condensing DNA strands via electrostatic attraction, and we show for the first time that DNA condensation is accompanied by random-to-?-sheet transitions of Penetratin secondary structure, demonstrating that nucleic acids behave as a structuring agent upon complexation. For the first time, nanoscale-resolved spectroscopy is used to provide single-particle infrared data from DNA carriers based on CPPs, and they show that the structures are stabilized by Penetratin ?-sheet cores, whereas larger DNA fractions are preferentially located in the periphery of aggregates. In-solution infrared assays indicate that phosphate diester groups are strongly affected upon DNA condensation, presumably as a consequence of charge delocalization induced by the proximity of cationic amide groups in Penetratin. The morphology is characterized by nanoassemblies with surface fractal features, and short-range order is found in the inner structure of the scaffolds. Interestingly, the formation of beads-on-a-string arrays is found, producing nanoscale architectures that resemble structures observed in early steps of chromatin condensation. A complexation pathway where DNA condensation and peptide pairing into ?-sheets are key steps for organization is proposed.