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Quantifying the ion atmosphere of unfolded, single-stranded nucleic acids using equilibrium dialysis and single-molecule methods.


To form secondary structure, nucleic acids (NAs) must overcome electrostatic strand-strand repulsion, which is moderated by the surrounding atmosphere of screening ions. The free energy of NA folding therefore depends on the interactions of this ion atmosphere with both the folded and unfolded states. We quantify such interactions using the preferential ion interaction coefficient or ion excess: the number of ions present near the NA in excess of the bulk concentration. The ion excess of the folded, double-helical state has been extensively studied; however, much less is known about the salt-dependent ion excess of the unfolded, single-stranded state. We measure this quantity using three complementary approaches: a direct approach of Donnan equilibrium dialysis read out by atomic emission spectroscopy and two indirect approaches involving either single-molecule force spectroscopy or existing thermal denaturation data. The results of these three approaches, each involving an independent experimental technique, are in good agreement. Even though the single-stranded NAs are flexible polymers that are expected to adopt random-coil configurations, we find that their ion atmosphere is quantitatively described by rod-like models that neglect large-scale conformational freedom, an effect that we explain in terms of the competition between the relevant structural and electrostatic length scales.

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