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Uncovering the Key Role of Distortion in Bioorthogonal Tetrazine Tools That Defy the Reactivity/Stability Trade-Off.


The tetrazine/trans-cyclooctene ligation stands out from the bioorthogonal toolbox due to its exceptional reaction kinetics, enabling multiple molecular technologies in vitro and in living systems. Highly reactive 2-pyridyl-substituted tetrazines have become state of the art for time-critical processes and selective reactions at very low concentrations. It is widely accepted that the enhanced reactivity of these chemical tools is attributed to the electron-withdrawing effect of the heteroaryl substituent. In contrast, we show that the observed reaction rates are way too high to be explained on this basis. Computational investigation of this phenomenon revealed that distortion of the tetrazine caused by intramolecular repulsive N-N interaction plays a key role in accelerating the cycloaddition step. We show that the limited stability of tetrazines in biological media strongly correlates with the electron-withdrawing effect of the substituent, while intramolecular repulsion increases the reactivity without reducing the stability. These fundamental insights reveal thus far overlooked mechanistic aspects that govern the reactivity/stability trade-off for tetrazines in physiologically relevant environments, thereby providing a new strategy that may facilitate the rational design of these bioorthogonal tools.

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