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DNA pulling through octane

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Ever since the 1953 discovery of DNA's double helix structure researchers wondered how the double strands are separated so that genetic information stored inside the helix can be delivered from generation to generation. A class of proteins known to achieve this separation are DNA helicases (see Sept 2006 highlight), molecular motors that operate at a fork where a double stranded DNA separates into two single stranded DNAs. Helicases translocate along one of the single stranded DNAs, pushing forcefully into the fork to split the double stranded DNA apart further. Helicases seem to work, though, both through force and through persuasion, exposing to the double stranded DNA a surface that is apparently conducive for strand separation. This property suggests itself on account of the fact that many of the amino acid side groups at the relevant surface are highly conserved among species or evolved from species to species through pairwise mutation. But what chemical strategy evolution had in mind in molding the surface was not realized. Recently, however, researchers seeking artificial means of splitting double stranded DNA apart might have found a key clue. They pulled double stranded DNA at one of its single strands by means of an atomic force microscope from DNA's native salt water environment into a so-called non-polar solvent. The force - distance curve measured suggested that the DNA actually split apart, but there existed no direct experimental means of viewing the splitting. The researchers employed instead molecular dynamics simulations, using NAMD, that indeed clearly revealed the splitting of the DNA strands at a water - oil (octane) interface as reported in a recent publication. The study suggests how helicases achieve the splitting of DNA strands, namely by altering the local environment of DNA from water-like (hydrophilic) to oil-like (hydrophobic). More information here.