Thermodynamics of DNA branching

Min Lu, Qiu Guo, Luis A. Marky, Nadrian C. Seeman, Neville R. Kallenbach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Branched DNA molecules arise transiently as intermediates in genetic recombination or on extrusion of cruciforms from covalent circular DNA duplexes that contain palindromic sequences. The free energy of these structures relative to normal DNA duplexes is of interest both physically and biologically. Oligonucleotide complexes that can form stable branched structures, DNA junctions, have made it possible to model normally unstable branched states of DNA such as Holliday recombinational intermediates. We present here an evaluation of the free energy of creating four-arm branch points in duplex DNA, using a system of two complementary junctions and four DNA duplexes formed from different combinations of the same set of eight 16-mer strands. The thermodynamics of formation of each branched structure from the matching pair of intact duplexes have been estimated in two experiments. In the first, labeled strands are allowed to partition between duplexes and junctions in a competition assay on polyacrylamide gels. In the second, the heats of forming branched or linear molecules from the component strands have been determined by titration microcalorimetry at several temperatures. Taken together these measurements allow us to determine the standard thermodynamic parameters for the process of creating a branch in an otherwise normal DNA duplex. The free energy for reacting two 16-mer duplexes to yield a four-arm junction in which the branch site is incapable of migrating is +1.1(±0.4) kcal mol-1 (at 18 °C, 10 mm-Mg2+). Analysis of the distribution of duplex and tetramer products by electrophoresis confirms that the free energy difference between the four duplexes and two junctions is small at this temperature. The associated enthalpy change at 18 °C is +27.1(±1.3) kcal mol-1, while the entropy is +89 (±30) cal K-1 mol-1. The free energy for branching is temperature dependent, with a large unfavorable enthalpy change compensated by a favorable entropy term. Since forming one four-stranded complex from two duplexes should be an entropically unfavorable process, branch formation is likely to be accompanied by significant changes in hydration and ion binding. A significant apparent ΔCp is also observed for the formation of one mole of junction, +0.97(±0.05) kcal deg-1mol-1.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)781-789
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 5 1992


  • Holliday junctions
  • recombination
  • thermodynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology


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