"Electrostatics of Nucleic Acid Folding under Conformational Constraint"

Peter C. Anthony: Adelene Y. L. Sim, Vincent B. Chu, Sebastian Doniach, Steven M. Block, and Daniel Herschlag; American Chemical Society, 02/27/12.

Additional Authors: Adelene Y. L. Sim, Vincent B. Chu, Sebastian Doniach, Steven M. Block, and Daniel Herschlag


RNA folding is enabled by interactions between the nucleic acid and its ion atmosphere, the mobile sheath of aqueous ions that surrounds and stabilizes it. Understanding the ion atmosphere requires the interplay of experiment and theory. However, even an apparently simple experiment to probe the ion atmosphere, measuring the dependence of DNA duplex stability upon ion concentration and identity, suffers from substantial complexity, because the unfolded ensemble contains many conformational states that are difficult to treat accurately with theory. To minimize this limitation, we measured the unfolding equilibrium of a DNA hairpin using a single-molecule optical trapping assay, in which the unfolded state is constrained to a limited set of elongated conformations. The unfolding free energy increased linearly with the logarithm of monovalent cation concentration for several cations, such that smaller cations tended to favor the folded state. Mg2+ stabilized the hairpin much more effectively at low concentrations than did any of the monovalent cations. Poisson–Boltzmann theory captured trends in hairpin stability measured for the monovalent cation titrations with reasonable accuracy, but failed to do so for the Mg2+ titrations. This finding is consistent with previous work, suggesting that Poisson–Boltzmann and other mean-field theories fail for higher valency cations where ion–ion correlation effects may become significant. The high-resolution data herein, because of the straightforward nature of both the folded and the unfolded states, should serve as benchmarks for the development of more accurate electrostatic theories that will be needed for a more quantitative and predictive understanding of nucleic acid folding.