A variety of monothio- and dithiosubstituted duplex aptamers targeting NF-kappaB have been synthesized and designed. The specificity and affinity of the dithioate aptamers of p50 and RelA(p65) NF-kappaB homodimers was determined by gel shift experiments. The NMR solution structures for several unmodified and dithioate backbone modified 14-base paired duplex aptamers have been determined by a hybrid, complete matrix (MORASS)/restrained molecular dynamics method. Structural perturbations of the dithioate substitutions support our hypothesis that the dithioate binds cations less tightly than phosphoryl groups. This increases the electrostatic repulsion across the B-form narrow minor groove and enlarges the minor groove, similar to that found in A-form duplexes. Structural analysis of modeled aptamer complexes with NF-kappaB homo- and heterodimers suggests that the dithioate backbone substitution can increase the aptamer's relative affinity to basic groups in proteins such as NF-kappaB by helping to "strip" the cations from the aptamer backbone.