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Biophys J. Jan 2001; 80(1): 140–148.
PMCID: PMC1301220

The physical basis of nucleic acid base stacking in water.


It has been argued that the stacking of adenyl groups in water must be driven primarily by electrostatic interactions, based upon NMR data showing stacking for two adenyl groups joined by a 3-atom linker but not for two naphthyl groups joined by the same linker. In contrast, theoretical work has suggested that adenine stacking is driven primarily by nonelectrostatic forces, and that electrostatic interactions actually produce a net repulsion between adenines stacking in water. The present study provides evidence that the experimental data for the 3-atom-linked bis-adenyl and bis-naphthyl compounds are consistent with the theory indicating that nonelectrostatic interactions drive adenine stacking. First, a theoretical conformational analysis is found to reproduce the observed ranking of the stacking tendencies of the compounds studied experimentally. A geometric analysis identifies two possible reasons, other than stronger electrostatic interactions, why the 3-atom-linked bis-adenyl compounds should stack more than the bis-naphthyl compounds. First, stacked naphthyl groups tend to lie further apart than stacked adenyl groups, based upon both quantum calculations and crystal structures. This may prevent the bis-naphthyl compound from stacking as extensively as the bis-adenyl compound. Second, geometric analysis shows that more stacked conformations are sterically accessible to the bis-adenyl compound than to the bis-naphthyl compound because the linker is attached to the sides of the adenyl groups, but to the ends of the naphthyl groups. Finally, ab initio quantum mechanics calculations and energy decompositions for relevant conformations of adenine and naphthalene dimers support the view that stacking in these compounds is driven primarily by nonelectrostatic interactions. The present analysis illustrates the importance of considering all aspects of a molecular system when interpreting experimental data, and the value of computer models as an adjunct to chemical intuition.

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Selected References

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