DNA overwinds when stretched

Nature. 2006 Aug 17;442(7104):836-9. doi: 10.1038/nature04974. Epub 2006 Jul 12.


DNA is often modelled as an isotropic rod, but its chiral structure suggests the possible importance of anisotropic mechanical properties, including coupling between twisting and stretching degrees of freedom. Simple physical intuition predicts that DNA should unwind under tension, as it is pulled towards a denatured structure. We used rotor bead tracking to directly measure twist-stretch coupling in single DNA molecules. Here we show that for small distortions, contrary to intuition, DNA overwinds under tension, reaching a maximum twist at a tension of approximately 30 pN. As tension is increased above this critical value, the DNA begins to unwind. The observed twist-stretch coupling predicts that DNA should also lengthen when overwound under constant tension, an effect that we quantitatively confirm. We present a simple model that explains these unusual mechanical properties, and also suggests a possible origin for the anomalously large torsional rigidity of DNA. Our results have implications for the action of DNA-binding proteins that must stretch and twist DNA to compensate for variability in the lengths of their binding sites. The requisite coupled DNA distortions are favoured by the intrinsic mechanical properties of the double helix reported here.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • DNA / chemistry*
  • DNA / metabolism*
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Models, Molecular
  • Nucleic Acid Conformation*


  • DNA