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The role of DNA in the pathogenesis of SLE: DNA as a molecular chameleon
  1. David S Pisetsky1,2,
  2. Alan Herbert3
  1. 1 Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, USA
  2. 2 Medical Research, Durham VA Health Care System, Durham, North Carolina, USA
  3. 3 InsideOutBio Inc, Charlestown, Massachusetts, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr David S Pisetsky, Duke University Medical Center, Medical Research Service, Durham, North Carolina, USA; david.pisetsky{at}


Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a prototypic autoimmune disease characterised by antibodies to DNA (anti-DNA) and other nuclear macromolecules. Anti-DNA antibodies are markers for classification and disease activity and promote pathogenesis by forming immune complexes that deposit in the tissue or stimulate cytokine production. Studies on the antibody response to DNA have focused primarily on a conformation of DNA known as B-DNA, the classic right-handed double helix. Among other conformations of DNA, Z-DNA is a left-handed helix with a zig-zag backbone; hence, the term Z-DNA. Z-DNA formation is favoured by certain base sequences, with the energetically unfavourable flip from B-DNA to Z-DNA dependent on conditions. Z-DNA differs from B-DNA in its immunogenicity in animal models. Furthermore, anti-Z-DNA antibodies, but not anti-B-DNA antibodies, can be present in otherwise healthy individuals. In SLE, antibodies to Z-DNA can occur in association with antibodies to B-DNA as a cross-reactive response, rising and falling together. While formed transiently in chromosomal DNA, Z-DNA is stably present in bacterial biofilms; biofilms can provide protection against antibiotics and other challenges including elements of host defence. The high GC content of certain bacterial DNA also favours Z-DNA formation as do DNA-binding proteins of bacterial or host origin. Together, these findings suggest that sources of Z-DNA can enhance the immunogenicity of DNA and, in SLE, stimulate the production of cross-reactive antibodies that bind both B-DNA and Z-DNA. As such, DNA can act as a molecular chameleon that, when stabilised in the Z-DNA conformation, can drive autoimmunity.

  • Autoantibodies
  • Autoimmunity
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic

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  • Handling editor Josef S Smolen

  • Contributors DSP and AH wrote the article together.

  • Funding Work completed in DSP’s lab was supported by a Veterans Administration Merit Review grant (BX003772) and a National Institutes of Health grant (R01AR073935).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.