DNA overwinds when stretched

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Abstract

DNA is often modelled as an isotropic rod1-4, but its chiral structure suggests the possible importance of anisotropic mechanical properties, including coupling between twisting and stretching degrees of freedom. Simple physical intuition predicts that DNA should unwind under tension, as it is pulled towards a denatured structure4-8. We used rotor bead tracking to directly measure twist-stretch coupling in single DNA molecules. Here we show that for small distortions, contrary to intuition, DNA over-winds under tension, reaching a maximum twist at a tension of ∼30 pN. As tension is increased above this critical value, the DNA begins to unwind. The observed twist-stretch coupling predicts that DNA should also lengthen when over-wound under constant tension, an effect that we quantitatively confirm. We present a simple model that explains these unusual mechanical properties, and also suggests a possible origin for the anomalously large torsional rigidity of DNA. Our results have implications for the action of DNA-binding proteins that must stretch and twist DNA to compensate for variability in the lengths of their binding sites9-11. The requisite coupled DNA distortions are favoured by the intrinsic mechanical properties of the double helix reported here.

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