Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are widely used to perturb the conformations of nucleic acids, including G-quadruplexes. The mechanism by which PEG alters G-quadruplex conformation is poorly understood. We describe here studies designed to determine how PEG and other co-solutes affect the conformation of the human telomeric quadruplex. Osmotic stress studies using acetonitrile and ethylene glycol show that conversion of the 'hybrid' conformation to an all-parallel 'propeller' conformation is accompanied by the release of about 17 water molecules per quadruplex and is energetically unfavorable in pure aqueous solutions. Sedimentation velocity experiments show that the propeller form is hydrodynamically larger than hybrid forms, ruling out a crowding mechanism for the conversion by PEG. PEGs do not alter water activity sufficiently to perturb quadruplex hydration by osmotic stress. PEG titration experiments are most consistent with a conformational selection mechanism in which PEG binds more strongly to the propeller conformation, and binding is coupled to the conformational transition between forms. Molecular dynamics simulations show that PEG binding to the propeller form is sterically feasible and energetically favorable. We conclude that PEG does not act by crowding and is a poor mimic of the intranuclear environment, keeping open the question of the physiologically relevant quadruplex conformation.
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