A comparison of DNA compaction by arginine and lysine peptides: A physical basis for arginine rich protamines

Jason Derouchey, Brandon Hoover, Donald C. Rau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

83 Scopus citations


Protamines are small, highly positively charged peptides used to package DNA at very high densities in sperm nuclei. Tight DNA packing is considered essential for the minimization of DNA damage by mutagens and reactive oxidizing species. A striking and general feature of protamines is the almost exclusive use of arginine over lysine for the positive charge to neutralize DNA. We have investigated whether this preference for arginine might arise from a difference in DNA condensation by arginine and lysine peptides. The forces underlying DNA compaction by arginine, lysine, and ornithine peptides are measured using the osmotic stress technique coupled with X-ray scattering. The equilibrium spacings between DNA helices condensed by lysine and ornithine peptides are significantly larger than the interhelical distances with comparable arginine peptides. The DNA surface-to-surface separation, for example, is some 50% larger with polylysine than with polyarginine. DNA packing by lysine rich peptides in sperm nuclei would allow much greater accessibility to small molecules that could damage DNA. The larger spacing with lysine peptides is caused by both a weaker attraction and a stronger short-range repulsion relative to that of the arginine peptides. A previously proposed model for binding of polyarginine and protamine to DNA provides a convenient framework for understanding the differences between the ability of lysine and arginine peptides to assemble DNA.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3000-3009
Number of pages10
Issue number17
StatePublished - Apr 30 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry


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