Single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) is an essential intermediate in various DNA metabolic processes and interacts with a large number of proteins. Due to its flexibility, the conformations of ssDNA in solution can only be described using statistical approaches, such as flexibly jointed or worm-like chain models. However, there is limited data available to assess such models quantitatively, especially for describing the flexibility of short ssDNA and RNA. To address this issue, we performed FRET studies of a series of oligodeoxythymidylates, (dT)N, over a wide range of salt concentrations and chain lengths (10 ≤ N ≤ 70 nucleotides), which provide systematic constraints for testing theoretical models. Unlike in mechanical studies where available ssDNA conformations are averaged out during the time it takes to perform measurements, fluorescence lifetimes may act here as an internal clock that influences fluorescence signals depending on how fast the ssDNA conformations fluctuate. A reasonably good agreement could be obtained between our data and the worm-like chain model provided that limited relaxations of the ssDNA conformations occur within the fluorescence lifetime of the donor. The persistence length thus estimated ranges from 1.5 nm in 2 M NaCl to 3 nm in 25 mM NaCl.
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