To clarify the physical basis of DNA binding specificity, the thermodynamic properties and DNA binding and bending abilities of the DNA binding domains (DBDs) of sequence-specific (SS) and non-sequencespecific (NSS) HMG box proteins were studied with various DNA recognition sequences using micro-calorimetric and optical methods. Temperature-induced unfolding of the free DBDs showed that their structure does not represent a single cooperative unit but is subdivided into two (in the case of NSS DBDs) or three (in the case of SS DBDs) subdomains, which differ in stability. Both types of HMG box, most particularly SS, are partially unfolded even at room temperature but association with DNA results in stabilization and cooperation of all the subdomains. Binding and bending measurements using fluorescence spectroscopy over a range of ionic strengths, combined with calorimetric data, allowed separation of the electrostatic and non-electrostatic components of the Gibbs energies of DNA binding, yielding their enthalpic and entropic terms and an estimate of their contributions to DNA binding and bending. In all cases electrostatic interactions dominate non-electrostatic in the association of a DBD with DNA. The main difference between SS and NSS complexes is that SS are formed with an enthalpy close to zero and a negative heat capacity effect, while NSS are formed with a very positive enthalpy and a positive heat capacity effect. This indicates that formation of SS HMG box–DNA complexes is specified by extensive van der Waals contacts between apolar groups, i.e. a more tightly packed interface forms than in NSS complexes. The other principal difference is that DNA bending by the NSS DBDs is driven almost entirely by the electrostatic component of the binding energy, while DNA bending by SS DBDs is driven mainly by the non-electrostatic component. The basic extensions of both categories of HMG box play a similar role in DNA binding and bending, making solely electrostatic interactions with the DNA.