DNA containing one or more copies of the motifs repeated in telomere sequences has unusual conformational properties. The isolated sequence from the protozoan Oxytricha, dT4G4has the potential to form tetramers in the presence of sodium or potassium ions. We report here that these tetramers bind ethidium tightly, with an interaction that fulfills several criteria for an intercalative mechanism in the G sequence. By contrast, the 4-fold tandem repeat of this subunit, d(T4G4)4, does not interact specifically with ethidium in the presence of Na+. This difference might have a simple structural basis: the tetramer of dT4G4forms a stack of four G-quartets in the presence of Na+or K+, whereas the constraint imposed by the T4 “tethers” in the repeat d(T4G4)4 allows only two layers to form in the presence of Na+. In the presence of sufficient K+, the latter can partially form a four-layer G-quartet structure, which interacts with ethidium. This idea is supported by analysis of a “relaxed” sequence, dT4G4(T7G4)3, which allows formation of four G-quartets and binds ethidium in the presence of Na+as well as K+. Ethidium (and intercalators generally) should thus be able to retard or inhibit the action of telomerase in the presence of K+.
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