Unwinding Induced Melting of Double-Stranded DNA Studied by Free Energy Simulations

Korbinian Liebl, Martin Zacharias

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


DNA unwinding plays a major role in many biological processes, such as replication, transcription, and repair. It can lead to local melting and strand separation and can serve as a key mechanism to promote access to the separate strands of a double-stranded DNA. While DNA unwinding has been investigated extensively by DNA cyclization and single-molecule studies on a length-scale of kilo base pairs, it is neither fully understood at the base pair level nor at the level of molecular interactions. By employing a torque acting on the termini of DNA oligonucleotides during molecular dynamics free energy simulations, we locally unwind the central part of a DNA beyond an elastic (harmonic) regime. The simulations reproduce experimental results on the twist elasticity in the harmonic regime (characterized by a mostly quadratic free energy change with respect to changes in twist) and a deformation up to 7° was found as a limit of the harmonic response. Beyond this limit the free energy increase per twist change dropped dramatically coupled to local base pair disruptions and significant deformation of the nucleic acid backbone structure. Restriction of the DNA bending flexibility resulted in a stiffer harmonic response and an earlier onset of the anharmonic response. Whereas local melting with a complete disruption of base pairing and flipping of nucleotides was observed in case of an AT rich central segment strong backbone changes and changes in the stacking arrangements were observed in case of a GC rich segment. Unrestrained MD simulations starting from locally melted DNA reformed regular B-DNA after 50-300 ns simulation time. The simulations may have important implications for understanding DNA recognition processes coupled with significant structural alterations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11019-11030
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry B
Issue number49
StatePublished - 14 Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


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