Thermodynamic basis of the α-helix and DNA duplex

Anatoliy Dragan, Colyn Crane-Robinson, Peter L. Privalov

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Analysis of calorimetric and crystallographic information shows that the α-helix is maintained not only by the hydrogen bonds between its polar peptide groups, as originally supposed, but also by van der Waals interactions between tightly packed apolar groups in the interior of the helix. These apolar contacts are responsible for about 60% of the forces stabilizing the folded conformation of the α-helix and their exposure to water on unfolding results in the observed heat capacity increment, i.e. the temperature dependence of the melting enthalpy. The folding process is also favoured by an entropy increase resulting from the release of water from the peptide groups. A similar situation holds for the DNA double helix: calorimetry shows that the hydrogen bonding between conjugate base pairs provides a purely entropic contribution of about 40% to the Gibbs energy while the enthalpic van der Waals interactions between the tightly packed apolar parts of the base pairs provide the remaining 60%. Despite very different structures, the thermodynamic basis of α-helix and B-form duplex stability are strikingly similar. The general conclusion follows that the stability of protein folds is primarily dependent on internal atomic close contacts rather than the hydrogen bonds they contain.
Original languageEnglish
Article number252
Pages (from-to)787-792
Number of pages6
JournalEuropean Biophysics Journal
Issue number5
Early online date24 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021


  • α-Helix
  • DNA double helix
  • stabilty
  • Van der Waals interactions
  • hydrogen bonding


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