Spontaneous assembly of DNA molecules into compact structures is ubiquitous in biological systems. Experiment has shown that polycations can turn electrostatic self-repulsion of DNA into attraction, yet the physical mechanism of DNA condensation has remained elusive. Here, we report the results of atomistic molecular dynamics simulations that elucidated the microscopic structure of dense DNA assemblies and the physics of interactions that makes such assemblies possible. Reproducing the setup of the DNA condensation experiments, we measured the internal pressure of DNA arrays as a function of the DNA-DNA distance, showing a quantitative agreement between the results of our simulations and the experimental data. Analysis of the MD trajectories determined the DNA-DNA force in a DNA condensate to be pairwise, the DNA condensation to be driven by electrostatics of polycations and not hydration, and the concentration of bridging cations, not adsorbed cations, to determine the magnitude and the sign of the DNA-DNA force. Finally, our simulations quantitatively characterized the orientational correlations of DNA in DNA arrays as well as diffusive motion of DNA and cations.
ASJC Scopus subject areas