Elasticity of the transition state for oligonucleotide hybridization
Despite its fundamental importance in cellular processes and abundant use in biotechnology, we lack a detailed understanding of the kinetics of nucleic acid hybridization. In particular, the identity of the transition state, which determines the kinetics of the two-state reaction, remains poorly characterized. Here, we used optical tweezers with single-molecule fluorescence to observe directly the binding and unbinding of short oligonucleotides (7–12 nt) to a complementary strand held under constant force. Binding and unbinding rate constants measured across a wide range of forces (1.5–20 pN) deviate from the exponential force dependence expected from Bell's equation. Using a generalized force dependence model, we determined the elastic behavior of the transition state, which we find to be similar to that of the pure single-stranded state. Our results indicate that the transition state for hybridization is visited before the strands form any significant amount of native base pairs. Such a transition state supports a model in which the rate-limiting step of the hybridization reaction is the alignment of the two strands prior to base pairing.
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