Nucleic acid thermodynamics

Nucleic acid thermodynamics is the study of how temperature affects the nucleic acid structure of double-stranded DNA (dsDNA). The melting temperature (Tm) is defined as the temperature at which half of the DNA strands are in the random coil or single-stranded (ssDNA) state. Tm depends on the length of the DNA molecule and its specific nucleotide sequence. DNA, when in a state where its two strands are dissociated (i.e., the dsDNA molecule exists as two independent strands), is referred to as having been denatured by the high temperature.

Concepts

Hybridization

Hybridization is the process of establishing a non-covalent, sequence-specific interaction between two or more complementary strands of nucleic acids into a single complex, which in the case of two strands is referred to as a duplex. Oligonucleotides, DNA, or RNA will bind to their complement under normal conditions, so two perfectly complementary strands will bind to each other readily. In order to reduce the diversity and obtain the most energetically preferred complexes, a technique called annealing is used in laboratory practice. However, due to the different molecular geometries of the nucleotides, a single inconsistency between the two strands will make binding between them less energetically favorable. Measuring the effects of base incompatibility by quantifying the temperature at which two strands anneal can provide information as to the similarity in base sequence between the two strands being annealed. The complexes may be dissociated by thermal denaturation, also referred to as melting. In the absence of external negative factors, the processes of hybridization and melting may be repeated in succession indefinitely, which lays the ground for polymerase chain reaction. Most commonly, the pairs of nucleic bases A=T and G≡C are formed, of which the latter is more stable.

Denaturation

DNA denaturation, also called DNA melting, is the process by which double-stranded deoxyribonucleic acid unwinds and separates into single-stranded strands through the breaking of hydrophobic stacking attractions between the bases. See Hydrophobic effect. Both terms are used to refer to the process as it occurs when a mixture is heated, although "denaturation" can also refer to the separation of DNA strands induced by chemicals like formamide or urea.[1]

The process of DNA denaturation can be used to analyze some aspects of DNA. Because cytosine / guanine base-pairing is generally stronger than adenine / thymine base-pairing, the amount of cytosine and guanine in a genome (called the "GC content") can be estimated by measuring the temperature at which the genomic DNA melts.[2] Higher temperatures are associated with high GC content.

DNA denaturation can also be used to detect sequence differences between two different DNA sequences. DNA is heated and denatured into single-stranded state, and the mixture is cooled to allow strands to rehybridize. Hybrid molecules are formed between similar sequences and any differences between those sequences will result in a disruption of the base-pairing. On a genomic scale, the method has been used by researchers to estimate the genetic distance between two species, a process known as DNA-DNA hybridization.[3] In the context of a single isolated region of DNA, denaturing gradient gels and temperature gradient gels can be used to detect the presence of small mismatches between two sequences, a process known as temperature gradient gel electrophoresis.[4][5]

Methods of DNA analysis based on melting temperature have the disadvantage of being proxies for studying the underlying sequence; DNA sequencing is generally considered a more accurate method.

The process of DNA melting is also used in molecular biology techniques, notably in the polymerase chain reaction. Although the temperature of DNA melting is not diagnostic in the technique, methods for estimating Tm are important for determining the appropriate temperatures to use in a protocol. DNA melting temperatures can also be used as a proxy for equalizing the hybridization strengths of a set of molecules, e.g. the oligonucleotide probes of DNA microarrays.

Annealing

Annealing, in genetics, means for complementary sequences of single-stranded DNA or RNA to pair by hydrogen bonds to form a double-stranded polynucleotide. Before annealing can occur, one of the strands may need to be phosphorylated by an enzyme such as kinase to allow proper hydrogen bonding to occur. The term annealing is often used to describe the binding of a DNA probe, or the binding of a primer to a DNA strand during a polymerase chain reaction. The term is also often used to describe the reformation (renaturation) of reverse-complementary strands that were separated by heat (thermally denatured). Proteins such as RAD52 can help DNA anneal.

Stacking

Melting stability of base pair stacks (B DNA)[6]
Step Melting ΔG°37
(Kcal/mol)
T A -0.12
T G or C A -0.78
C G -1.44
A G or C T -1.29
A A or T T -1.04
A T -1.27
G A or T C -1.66
C C or G G -1.97
A C or G T -2.04
G C -2.70