The Holliday junction is a key intermediate in genetic recombination. This is a four-stranded branched DNA structure, whose double-helical arms are stacked in two domains; two of the strands are roughly helical, and the other two cross over between domains. Switching the strands between these two roles is known as crossover isomerization; this postulated reversal is thought to be one of the key transformations that the Holliday junction can undergo, because it can lead to changing the products from patch to splice recombinants. We present direct evidence that this reaction can indeed occur in Holliday junctions in solution. We have constructed a double-crossover molecule containing a branched junction, constrained not to be in its favored conformation. This junction is released from the double-crossover molecule by digestion with restriction endonucleases. We demonstrate by means of hydroxyl radical autofootprinting that the junction changes its crossover isomer spontaneously when released from the double crossover. We control for the possibility that the experimental protocol causes the isomerization. We also exclude dissociation and interaction with other molecules in solution as contributing to the phenomenon. Thus, crossover isomerization is an authentic spontaneous transformation of Holliday junctions.
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