Indexed on: 10 Nov '07Published on: 10 Nov '07Published in: Journal of the American Chemical Society
The ion atmosphere around nucleic acids critically affects biological and physical processes such as chromosome packing, RNA folding, and molecular recognition. However, the dynamic nature of the ion atmosphere renders it difficult to characterize. The basic thermodynamic description of this atmosphere, a full accounting of the type and number of associated ions, has remained elusive. Here we provide the first complete accounting of the ion atmosphere, using buffer equilibration and atomic emission spectroscopy (BE-AES) to accurately quantitate the cation association and anion depletion. We have examined the influence of ion size and charge on ion occupancy around simple, well-defined DNA molecules. The relative affinity of monovalent and divalent cations correlates inversely with their size. Divalent cations associate preferentially over monovalent cations; e.g., with Na+ in 4-fold excess of Mg2+ (20 vs 5 mM), the ion atmosphere nevertheless has 3-fold more Mg2+ than Na+. Further, the dicationic polyamine putrescine2+ does not compete effectively for association relative to divalent metal ions, presumably because of its lower charge density. These and other BE-AES results can be used to evaluate and guide the improvement of electrostatic treatments. As a first step, we compare the BE-AES results to predictions from the widely used nonlinear Poisson Boltzmann (NLPB) theory and assess the applicability and precision of this theory. In the future, BE-AES in conjunction with improved theoretical models, can be applied to complex binding and folding equilibria of nucleic acids and their complexes, to parse the electrostatic contribution from the overall thermodynamics of important biological processes.