Counterion association with native and denatured nucleic acids: An experimental approach

Jens Völker, Horst H. Klump, Gerald S. Manning, Kenneth J. Breslauer

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25 Scopus citations


The melting temperature of the poly(dA)·poly(dT) double helix is exquisitely sensitive to salt concentration, and the helix-to-coil transition is sharp. Modern calorimetric instrumentation allows this transition to be detected and characterized with high precision at extremely low duplex concentrations. We have taken advantage of these properties to show that this duplex can be used as a sensitive probe to detect and to characterize the influence of other solutes on solution properties. We demonstrate how the temperature associated with poly(dA)·poly(dT) melting can be used to define the change in bulk solution cation concentration imparted by the presence of other duplex and triplex solutes, in both their native and denatured states. We use this information to critically evaluate features of counterion condensation theory, as well as to illustrate "crosstalk" between different, non-contacting solute molecules. Specifically, we probe the melting of a synthetic homopolymer, poly(dA)·poly(dT), in the presence of excess genomic salmon sperm DNA, or in the presence of one of two synthetic RNA polymers (the poly(rA)·poly(rU) duplex or the poly(rU)·poly(rA)·poly(rU) triplex). We find that these additions cause a shift in the melting temperature of poly(dA)·poly(dT), which is proportional to the concentration of the added polymer and dependent on its conformational state (B versus A, native versus denatured, and triplex versus duplex). To a first approximation, the magnitude of the observed tm shift does not depend significantly on whether the added polymer is RNA or DNA, but it does depend on the number of strands making up the helix of the added polymer. We ascribe the observed changes in melting temperature of poly(dA)·poly(dT) to the increase in ionic strength of the bulk solution brought about by the presence of the added nucleic acid and its associated counterions. We refer to this communication between non-contacting biopolymers in solution as solvent-mediated crosstalk. By comparison with a known standard curve of tm versus log[Na+] for poly(dA)·poly(dT), we estimate the magnitude of the apparent change in ionic strength resulting from the presence of the bulk nucleic acid, and we compare these results with predictions from theory. We find that current theoretical considerations correctly predict the direction of the tm shift (the melting temperature increases), while overestimating its magnitude. Specifically, we observe an apparent increase in ionic strength equal to 5 % of the concentration of the added duplex DNA or RNA (in mol phosphate), and an additional apparent increase of about 9.5 % of the nucleic acid concentration (mol phosphate) upon denaturation of the added DNA or RNA, yielding a total apparent increase of 14.5 %. For the poly(rU)·poly(rA)·poly(rU) triplex, the total apparent increase in ionic strength corresponds to about 13.6 % of the amount of added triplex (moles phosphate). The effect we observe is due to coupled equilibria between the solute molecules mediated by modulations in cation concentration induced by the presence and/or the transition of one of the solute molecules. We note that our results are general, so one can use a different solute probe sensitive to proton binding to characterize subtle changes in solution pH induced by the presence of another solute in solution. We discuss some of the broader implications of these measurements/results in terms of nucleic acid melting in multicomponent systems, in terms of probing counterion environments, and in terms of potential regulatory mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1011-1025
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of molecular biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 27 2001

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology


  • Calorimetry
  • Counterion condensation
  • Nucleic acid melting
  • Polyelectrolyte theory
  • Solute-solute crosstalk

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