Shells of compacted DNA as nanocontainers transporting proteins in multiplexed delivery

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Polyethyleneimine (PEI) polymers are known to compact DNA strands into spheroid, toroid, or rod structures. A formulation with mannose-grafted PEI (PEIm), however, was reported to compact DNA into ~100 nm spheroids that indented like thin-walled pressurized shells. The goal of the study is to understand why mannose bristles divert the traditional pathway of PEI-DNA compaction to produce shell-like structures, and to manipulate the process so that proteins can be packed into the core of the assembling shells for co-delivering DNA and proteins into cells. DLS, AFM, and TEM imaging provide a consistent picture that BSA proteins can be packed into the shells without altering the shell architecture, as long as the proteins were added during the time course of shell assembly. Force spectroscopy studies reveal that DNA shells that buckle also have a rich surface-coating of mannose, indicating that a micelle-like partitioning of hydrophobic and hydrophilic layers governs shell assembly. When HEK293T cells are spiked with BSA-laden DNA shells, co-transfection of DNA and BSA is observed at higher levels than control formulations. Distinct micron-sized features appear having both green fluorescence from BSA-FITC and blue fluorescence from NucBlue DNA stain, suggesting BSA release in nucleus and secretory granules. With DNA nanocontainers, proteins can take advantage of the efficiency of PEI-based DNA transfection for hitchhiking into cells while being shielded from the challenges of the intracellular route. DNA nanocontainers are rapid to assemble, not dependent on the DNA sequence, and can be adapted for different protein types; thereby having potential to serve as a high-throughput platform in scenarios where DNA and protein have to be released at the same site and time within cells (e.g., theranostics, multiplexed co-delivery, gene editing).

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