Electrostatic mechanisms of DNA deformation

Loren Dean Williams, L. James Maher

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

152 Scopus citations


The genomes of higher cells consist of double-helical DNA, a densely charged polyelectrolyte of immense length. The intrinsic physical properties of DNA, as well as the properties of its complexes with proteins and ions, are therefore of fundamental interest in understanding the functions of DNA as an informational macro-molecule. Because individual DNA molecules often exceed 1 cm in length, it is clear that DNA bending, folding, and interaction with nuclear proteins are necessary for packaging genomes in small volumes and for integrating the nucleotide sequence information that guides genetic readout. This review first focuses on recent experiments exploring how the shape of the densely charged DNA polymer and asymmetries in its surrounding counterion distribution mutually influence one another. Attention is then turned to experiments seeking to discover the degree to which asymmetric phosphate neutralization can lead to DNA bending in protein-DNA complexes. It is argued that electrostatic effects play crucial roles in the intrinsic, sequence-dependent shape of DNA and in DNA shapes induced by protein binding.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)497-521
Number of pages25
JournalAnnual Review of Biophysics and Biomolecular Structure
StatePublished - 2000


  • Bending
  • Collapse
  • Counterion condensation
  • Curvature
  • Groove

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Structural Biology


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