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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Jan 1981; 78(1): 224–228.
PMCID: PMC319024

Chromosomes in living Escherichia coli cells are segregated into domains of supercoiling.


Torsional tension in the DNA double helix can be detected in living cells of Escherichia coli from measurements of the rate of trimethylpsoralen photobinding to the intracellular DNA. Here we show that this tension is relaxed in vivo when single-strand DNA breaks are introduced by gamma-irradiation and that approximately 160 nicks per genome equivalent of DNA are required to relax greater than 95% of the tension. Chromosomes containing less than 160 nicks per genome equivalent lose only a part of the tension, depending on the number of nicks. The remaining tension is maintained during incubations of cells at 0 degrees C. Chromosomes with tension relaxed by incubation of cells with inhibitors of DNA gyrase interact with the trimethylpsoralen probe independently of the number of nicks introduced by gamma-irradiation. The results fit a model in which the chromosome in growing E. coli cells (mean generation time, 30 min) is segregated into 43 +/- 10 domains of supercoiling per genome equivalent of DNA or 120 +/- 30 domains per nucleoid. The number of domains is unchanged in cells depleted of nascent RNA by growth with rifampicin, but varies somewhat in cells growing at different rates in different media.

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