Single-molecule biophysics of DNA bending: looping and unlooping

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Le, Tung T.
Kim, Harold D.
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DNA bending plays a vital role in numerous cellular activities such as transcription, viral packaging, and nucleosome formation. Therefore, understanding the physics of DNA bending at the length scales relevant to these processes is one of the main keys to the quantitative description of life. However, previous studies provide a divided picture on how DNA should be modeled in strong bending condition relevant to biology. My thesis is devoted to answering how far an elastic rod model can be applied to DNA. We consider several subtle features that could potentially lead to the break-down of the worm-like chain model, such as local bendedness of the sequence and large bending angles. We used single-molecule Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer to track looping and unlooping of single DNA molecules in real time. We compared the measured looping and unlooping rates with theoretical predictions of the worm-like chain model. We found that the intrinsic curvature of the sequence affects the looping propensity of short DNA and an extended worm-like chain model including the helical parameters of individual base pairs could adequately explain our measurements. For DNA with random sequence and negligible curvature, we discovered that the worm-like chain model could explain the stability of small DNA loops only down to a critical loop size. Below the critical loop size, the bending stress stored in the DNA loop became less sensitive to loop size, indicative of softened dsDNA. The critical loop size is sensitive to salt condition, especially to magnesium at mM concentrations. This finding enabled us to explain several contrasting results in the past and shed new light on the energetics of DNA bending.
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