The Influence of Salt on the Structure and Energetics of Supercoiled DNA

       We present a detailed computational study of the influence of salt on the configurations, energies, and dynamics of supercoiled DNA. A potential function that includes both elastic and electrostatic energy components is employed. Specifically, the electrostatic term, with salt dependent coefficients is modeled after Stigter's pioneering work on the effective diameter of DNA as a function of salt concentration. Because an effective charge per unit length is used, the electrostatic formulation does not require explicit modeling of phosphates and can be used to study long DNAs at any desired resolution of charge. With explicit consideration of the electrostatic energy, an elastic bending constant corresponding to the nonelectrostatic part of the bending contribution to the persistence length used. We show, for a series of salt concentrations ranging from 0.005 to 1.0 M sodium, how configurations and energies of supercoiled DNA (1000 and 3000 base pairs) change dramatically with the simulated salt environment. At high salt, the DNA adopts highly compact and bent interwound states, with the bending energy dominating over the other components, and the electrostatic energy playing a minor role in comparison to the bending and twisting terms. At low salt, the DNA supercoils are much more open and loosely interwound, and the electrostatic components are dominant. Over the range of 3 decades of salt examined, the electrostatic energy changes by a factor of 10. The buckling transition between the circle and figure-8 is highly sensitive to salt concentration: this transition is delayed as salt concentration decreases, with a particularly sharp increase below 0.1 M. For example, for a bending-to-twisting force constant ratio of A/C =1.5, the linking number difference (Lk) corresponding to equal energies for the circle and figure-8 increases from 2.1 to 3.25 as salt decreases from 1.0 to 0.005 M. We also present in detail a family of three-lobed supercoiled DNA configurations that are predicted by elasticity theory to be stable with lowLk. To our knowledge, such three dimensional structures have not been previously presented in connection with DNA supercoiling. These branched forms have a higher bending energy than the corresponding interwound configurations at the sameLk but, especially at low salt, this bending energy difference is relatively small in in comparison with the total energy, which is dominated by the electrostatic contributions. Significantly, the electrostatic energies of the three-lobed and (straight) interwound forms are comparable at each salt environment. We show how the three-lobed configurations change slowly with Lk, resulting in branched interwound forms at higher salt. In longer chains, the branched forms are highly interwound, with bent arms. At low salt, the branched supercoils are asymmetric, with longer interwound stem and two shorter arms. From molecular dynamics simulations we observe differences in the motions of the DNA as a function of salt. At high salt, the supercoiled chain is quite compact but fairly rigid, whereas at low salt the DNA is loosely coiled but more dynamic. Especially notable at low salt are the large-scale opening and closing of the chain as a whole and the rapid "slithering" of individual residues past each other. Toroidal forms are not detected under these conditions. However, the overall features of the open, loose supercoils found at low salt are more similar to those of toroidal than interwound configurations. Indeed, simulated x-ray scattering profiles reveal the same trends observed  experimentally and are consistent with a change from closed to open forms as salt is decreased. Like the minimization studies, the dynamics reveal a critical point near 0.1 M associated with the collapse of loose to tight supercoils. Near this physiological concentration, enhanced flexibility of the DNA is noted. The collective observations suggest a potential regulatory role for salt on supercoiled DNA function. Not only for closed circular DNA, but also for linear DNA with small looped regions.

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