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Biophys J. 2008 Jul;95(2):738-52. doi: 10.1529/biophysj.108.131524. Epub 2008 Apr 18.

Salt dependence of nucleic acid hairpin stability.

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Department of Physics and Astronomy and Department of Biochemistry, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri 65211, USA.


Single-stranded junctions/loops are frequently occurring structural motifs in nucleic acid structures. Due to the polyanionic nature of the nucleic acid backbone, metal ions play a crucial role in the loop stability. Here we use the tightly bound ion theory, which can account for the possible ion correlation and ensemble (fluctuation) effects, to predict the ion-dependence of loop and stem-loop (hairpin) free energies. The predicted loop free energy is a function of the loop length, the loop end-to-end distance, and the ion (Na(+) and Mg(2+) in this study) concentrations. Based on the statistical mechanical calculations, we derive a set of empirical formulas for the loop thermodynamic parameters as functions of Na(+) and Mg(2+) concentrations. For three specific types of loops, namely, hairpin, bulge, and internal loops, the predicted free energies agree with the experimental data. Further applications of these empirical formulas to RNA and DNA hairpin stability lead to good agreements with the available experimental data. Our results indicate that the ion-dependent loop stability makes significant contribution to the overall ion-dependence of the hairpin stability.

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