A set of styryl- and bis-styryl dyes, varying in length, aromatic surface, net positive charge and steric positioning or bulkiness of substituents, was tested for interactions with various ds-DNA or ds-RNA. Most of the compounds showed strong affinity toward ds-DNA/RNA, directly correlated to the synergistic contribution of the aromatic-conjugated surface and net positive charge. The volume or positioning of terminal aromatic substituents directly controlled the binding mode of the core structure, shifting between DNA/RNA groove binding or DNA/RNA intercalation. Consequently, upon binding to DNA/RNA the fluorimetric and induced CD (ICD) response varied for different compounds, for instance one derivative showed specific fluorescence increase with AT-DNA, while another derivative showed specific ICD response with AU-RNA. Preliminary screening on human tumour cell lines revealed an efficient cellular uptake for all dyes. Only mono-styryl-quinoline derivatives showed a strong antiproliferative activity combined with efficient fluorescent localisation, thus showing promising theragnostic potential, while other compounds were negligibly cytotoxic but still efficient fluorescent markers of cytoplasmic organelles.
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