Buckling Transitions in Superhelical DNA: Dependence on the Elastic Constants and DNA Size

Buckling transitions in superhelical DNA  are sudden changes in shape that accompany a smooth variation in a key parameter, such as superhelical density. Here we explore the dependence of these transitions on the elastic constants for bending and twisting, A and C, important characteristics of DNA's  bending  and twisting persistence lengths. The large range we explore extends to other elastic materials with self-contact interactions, modeled here by a Debye-Hückel electrostatic potential.

Our collective description of DNA shapes and energies over a wide range of  = A/C reveals a dramatic  dependence of DNA shape and associated configurational transitions on : transitions are sharp for large but masked for small. In particular, at small , a nonplanar circular family emerges, in agreement with Jülicher's recent analytical predictions; a continuum of forms (and associated writhing numbers) is also observed.

The relevance of these buckling transitions to DNA in solution is examined through studies of size dependence and thermal effects. Buckling transitions smooth considerably as size increases, and this can be explained in part by the lower curvature in larger plasmids. This trend suggests that buckling transitions should not be detectable for isolated (i.e., unbound) DNA plasmids of biological interest, except possibly for very large . Buckling phenomena would nonetheless be relevant for small DNA loops, particularly for higher values of  , and might have a role in regulatory mechanisms: a small change in superhelical stress could lead to a large configurational change.

Writhe distributions as a  function of , generated by Langevin dynamics simulations, reveal the importance of thermal fluctuations. Each distribution range (and multipeacked shape) can be interpreted by our buckling profiles. Significantly, the distributions for moderate to high superhelical densities are most sensitive to , isolating different distribution patterns. If this effect could be captured experimentally for small plasmids by currently available imaging techniques, such results suggest a slightly different experimental procedure for estimating the torsional stiffness of supercoiled DNA than considered to date.

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