Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have disproved the prevailing theory of how DNA binds itself. It is not, as is generally believed, hydrogen bonds which bind together the two sides of the DNA structure. Instead, water is the key. The discovery opens doors for new understanding in research in medicine and life sciences. The findings are published in PNAS.
DNA is constructed of two strands consisting of sugar molecules and phosphate groups. Between these two strands are nitrogen bases, the compounds that make up genes, with hydrogen bonds between them. Until now, it was commonly thought that those hydrogen bonds held the two strands together.
But now, researchers from Chalmers University of Technology show that the secret to DNA’s helical structure may be that the molecules have a hydrophobic interior, in an environment consisting mainly of water. The environment is therefore hydrophilic, while the DNA molecules’ nitrogen bases are hydrophobic, pushing away the surrounding water. When hydrophobic units are in a hydrophilic environment, they group together to minimize their exposure to the water.
e have also shown that DNA behaves totally differently in a hydrophobic environment. This could help us to understand DNA, and how it repairs. Nobody has previously placed DNA in a hydrophobic environment like this and studied how it behaves, so it’s not surprising that nobody has discovered this until now.”
The researchers also studied how DNA behaves in an environment that is more hydrophobic than normal, a method they were the first to experiment with. They used the hydrophobic solution polyethylene glycol, and changed the DNA’s surroundings step-by-step from the naturally hydrophilic environment to a hydrophobic one. They aimed to discover if there is a limit where DNA starts to lose its structure, when the DNA does not have a reason to bind, because the environment is no longer hydrophilic. The researchers observed that when the solution reached the borderline between hydrophilic and hydrophobic, the DNA molecules’ characteristic spiral form started to unravel.
Upon closer inspection, they observed that when the base pairs split from one another (due to external influence, or simply from random movements), holes are formed in the structure, allowing water to leak in. Because DNA wants to keep its interior dry, it presses together, with the base pairs coming together again to squeeze out the water. In a hydrophobic environment, this water is missing, so the holes stay in place.
“Hydrophobic catalysis and a potential biological role of DNA unstacking induced by environment effects” is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).