We have investigated the geometry of a number of three-arm branched DNA molecules by measuring the relative electrophoretic mobilities of analogues of each junction in which one pair of arms is extended. In general, the mobilities of three species of three-arm junctions in which the duplex arms are extended pairwise differ in the presence of Mg2+. This effect is eliminated by the absence of Mg2+ or by an increase in temperature, leading us to conclude that the three-arm DNA junctions are not 3-fold symmetric, because of either preferential stacking or asymmetric kinking of the arms at the branch that occurs in the presence of Mg2+. The geometry of the junction is governed by the base sequence at the branch and 1 bp removed from the branch. The pairwise elongated analogues of junctions that contain identical base pairs at the branch or 1 bp from the branch show mobility differences; when both positions have the same sequence no mobility differences are detected even in the presence of Mg2+. Formation of a branch in three-arm DNA junctions can be seen to produce a strain or deformation that propagates about one turn of the helix from the branch, leading thymines in this region to become hyperreactive to osmium tetraoxide. Surprisingly, the effect is independent of the presence or absence of metal cations. The structure of the three-arm junction is thus quite different in character from that of four-arm junctions both in the presence and absence of high concentrations of metal cations.
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