The Holliday junction (HJ), or four-way junction, is a central intermediate state of DNA for homologous genetic recombination and other genetic processes such as replication and repair. Branch migration is the process by which the exchange of homologous DNA regions occurs, and it can be spontaneous or driven by proteins. Unfolding of the HJ is required for branch migration. Our previous single-molecule fluorescence studies led to a model according to which branch migration is a stepwise process consisting of consecutive migration and folding steps. Folding of the HJ in one of the folded conformations terminates the branch migration phase. At the same time, in the unfolded state HJ rapidly migrates over entire homology region of the HJ in one hop. This process can be affected by irregularities in the DNA double helical structure, so mismatches almost terminate a spontaneous branch migration. Single-stranded breaks or nicks are the most ubiquitous defects in the DNA helix; however, to date, their effect on the HJ branch migration has not been studied. In addition, although nicked HJs are specific substrates for a number of enzymes involved in DNA recombination and repair, the role of this substrate specificity remains unclear. Our main goal in this work was to study the effect of nicks on the efficiency of HJ branch migration and the dynamics of the HJ. To accomplish this goal, we applied two single-molecule methods: atomic force microscopy and fluorescence resonance energy transfer. The atomic force microscopy data show that the nick does not prevent branch migration, but it does decrease the probability that the HJ will pass the DNA lesion. The single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer approaches were instrumental in detailing the effects of nicks. These studies reveal a dramatic change of the HJ dynamics. The nick changes the structure and conformational dynamics of the junctions, leading to conformations with geometries that are different from those for the intact HJ. On the basis of these data, we propose a model of branch migration in which the propensity of the junction to unfold decreases the lifetimes of folded states, thereby increasing the frequency of junction fluctuations between the folded states.
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