Atomic-level simulations show electrostatic forces between each atom. [Alek Aksimentiev, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]
Atomic-level simulations show electrostatic forces between each atom. [Alek Aksimentiev, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

The traditionally held hypothesis about the highly ordered organization of DNA describes the interaction of various proteins with DNA sequences to mediate the dynamic structure of the molecule. However, recent evidence has emerged that stretches of homologous DNA sequences can associate preferentially with one another, even in the absence of proteins.

Researchers at the University of Illinois Center for the Physics of Living Cells, Johns Hopkins University, and Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea found that DNA molecules interact directly with one another in ways that are dependent on the sequence of the DNA and epigenetic factors, such as methylation. 

The researchers described evidence they found for sequence-dependent attractive interactions between double-stranded DNA molecules that neither involve intermolecular strand exchange nor are mediated by DNA-binding proteins.

“DNA molecules tend to repel each other in water, but in the presence of special types of cations, they can attract each other just like nuclei pulling each other by sharing electrons in between,” explained lead study author Hajin Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor of biophysics at UNIST. “Our study suggests that the attractive force strongly depends on the nucleic acid sequence and also the epigenetic modifications.”

The investigators used atomic-level supercomputer simulations to measure the forces between a pair of double-stranded DNA helices and proposed that the distribution of methyl groups on the DNA was the key to regulating this sequence-dependent attraction. To verify their findings experimentally, the scientists were able to observe a single pair of DNA molecules within nanoscale bubbles.

“Here we combine molecular dynamics simulations with single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer experiments to examine the interactions between duplex DNA in the presence of spermine, a biological polycation,” the authors wrote. “We find that AT-rich DNA duplexes associate more strongly than GC-rich duplexes, regardless of the sequence homology. Methyl groups of thymine act as a steric block, relocating spermine from major grooves to interhelical regions, thereby increasing DNA–DNA attraction.”

The findings from this study were published recently in Nature Communications in an article entitled “Direct Evidence for Sequence-Dependent Attraction Between Double-Stranded DNA Controlled by Methylation.”

After conducting numerous further simulations, the research team concluded that direct DNA–DNA interactions could play a central role in how chromosomes are organized in the cell and which ones are expanded or folded up compactly, ultimately determining functions of different cell types or regulating the cell cycle.

“Biophysics is a fascinating subject that explores the fundamental principles behind a variety of biological processes and life phenomena,” Dr. Kim noted. “Our study requires cross-disciplinary efforts from physicists, biologists, chemists, and engineering scientists and we pursue the diversity of scientific disciplines within the group.”

Dr. Kim concluded by stating that “in our lab, we try to unravel the mysteries within human cells based on the principles of physics and the mechanisms of biology. In the long run, we are seeking for ways to prevent chronic illnesses and diseases associated with aging.”








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