Computer Simulations of Supercoiled DNA Energetics and Dynamics

A new formulation is presented for investigating supercoiled DNA configurations by deterministic techniques. Thus far, the computational difficulties involved in applying deterministic methods to supercoiled DNA studies have generally limited computer simulations to stochastic approaches. While stochastic methods, such as simulated annealing and Metropolis-Monte Carlo sampling, are successful at generating a large number of configurations and estimating thermodynamic properties of topoisomer ensembles, deterministic methods offer an accurate characterization of the minima and a systematic following of their dynamics.

To make this feasible, we model circular duplex DNA compactly by a B-spline ribbon-like model in terms of a small number of control vertices. We associate an elastic deformation energy composed of bending and twisting integrals and represent intrachain contact by a 6-12 Lennard Jones potential. The latter is parametrized to yield an energy minimum at the observed DNA-helix diameter inclusive of a hydration shell. A penalty term to ensure fixed contour length is also included. First and second partial derivatives of the energy function have been derived by using various mathematical simplifications. First derivatives are essential for Newton-type minimization as well as molecular dynamics, and partial second-derivative information can significantly accelerate minimization convergence through preconditioning. Here we apply a new large-scale truncated-Newton algorithm for minimization and a Langevin/implicit-Euler scheme for molecular dynamics. Our truncated-Newton method exploits the separability of potential energy functions into terms of differing complexity. It relies on a preconditioned conjugate gradient method that is efficient for large-scale problems to solve approximately for the search direction at every step. Our dynamics algorithm is numerically stable over large timesteps. It also introduces a frequency-discriminating mechanism so that vibrational modes with frequencies greater than a chosen cutoff frequency are essentially frozen by the method.

With these tools, we rapidly identify corresponding circular and interwound energy minima for small DNA rings for a series of imposed linking-number differences. These structures are consistent with available electron microscopy data. The energetic exchange of stability between the circle and the figure-8, in very good agreement with analytical results is also detailed. Molecular dynamics trajectories at 100 femtosecond timesteps then reveal the rapid folding of the unstable circular state into supercoiled forms. Significant bending and twisting motions of the interwound structures are also observed. Such information may be useful for understanding transition states along the folding pathway and the role of enzymes that regulate supercoiling. More generally, new quantitative data obtained by such deterministic approaches may help in interpreting the effects of supercoiling on key biological processes.

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