Physical methods have been used to study calcium binding to the nucleosome core particle. Equilibrium dialysis of Ca2+ and spectroscopic analysis of a Ca2+ analogue show that the ion binds tightly to the particles, resulting in a significant change of DNA circular dichroism. This suggests that base stacking may be altered as a result of Ca2+ binding. In the presence of Ca2+, the absorbance and fluorescence properties of methylene blue (MB), a DNA-specific intercalator, confirm that the dye binds tightly to nucleosomes by intercalation. However, secondary changes occur which suggest that the MB binding site is altered as a result of Ca2+ binding. Triplet state anisotropy decay and triplet lifetime quenching both show that in the Ca2+-nucleosome complex, methylene blue is capable of wobbling over a substantial angular range at its binding site. To explain these data, it is proposed that Ca2+ binding to nucleosomes causes DNA to fold by means of a series of sharp bends (kinks). The properties of bound MB are best explained if it is presumed that the intercalator binds tightly to such kinked sites in the nucleosome. On the basis of these observations, we discuss the possibility that multivalent ion concentration in the nucleus is high enough that the smooth to kinked helix equilibrium may be near to its midpoint. Near such a midpoint, the secondary structure of DNA in the nucleosome might prove to be sensitive to effector molecule binding and to site-specific variation of DNA or histone composition within genes.
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