Single-stranded DNA-binding proteins (SSBs) bind single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) and participate in all genetic processes involving ssDNA, such as replication, recombination, and repair. Here we applied atomic force microscopy to directly image SSB-DNA complexes under various conditions. We used the hybrid DNA construct methodology in which the ssDNA segment is conjugated to the DNA duplex. The duplex part of the construct plays the role of a marker, allowing unambiguous identification of specific and nonspecific SSB-DNA complexes. We designed hybrid DNA substrates with 5′- and 3′-ssDNA termini to clarify the role of ssDNA polarity on SSB loading. The hybrid substrates, in which two duplexes are connected with ssDNA, were the models for gapped DNA substrates. We demonstrated that Escherichia coli SSB binds to ssDNA ends and internal ssDNA regions with the same efficiency. However, the specific recognition by ssDNA requires the presence of Mg 2+ cations or a high ionic strength. In the absence of Mg 2+ cations and under low-salt conditions, the protein is capable of binding DNA duplexes. In addition, the number of interprotein interactions increases, resulting in the formation of clusters on double-stranded DNA. This finding suggests that the protein adopts different conformations depending on ionic strength, and specific recognition of ssDNA by SSB requires a high ionic strength or the presence of Mg 2+ cations.
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