Number of base pairs with at least two inter-base H-bonds: 28 or 29?

Early on when I started on DNA structures, I read Saenger’s book Principles of Nucleic Acid Structure and became familiar with his classification of the 28 possible base-pairs (bps) for A, G, U(T), and C involving at least two (cyclic) hydrogen bonds (see figure below).

The 28 possible base-pairs for A, G, U(T), and C involving at least two (cyclic) hydrogen bonds.

Later on, I read from the 2nd edition of The RNA World book a list of 29 bps compiled by Burkard, Turner & Tinoco. While the one bp discrepancy (28 vs 29) has been in my mind for quite a long while, I had never paid much attention to the issue until recently while adding classifications of RNA bps (among many other functionalities) to 3DNA. A Google search did not help solve the puzzle, so I decided to dig it out by comparing the two lists.

The Burkard et al. list is titled Structures of Base Pairs Involving at Least Two Hydrogen Bonds and it mentions specifically Saenger’s list:

The structures of 29 possible base pairs that involve at least two hydrogen bonds are given in Figures 1–5 (for further descriptions, see Saenger, in Principles of nucleic acid structure, p. 120. Springer-Verlag [1984]).

However, in the five figures, Burkard et al. do not provide the corresponding Saenger numbers (I to XXVIII, 1—28) for the 28 common bps; thus it is not immediately obvious which one (i.e., the new addition by Burkard et al.) is missing from Saenger’s list. Under careful scrutiny, the absent bp turns out to be the “G•C N3-amino, amino-N3” pair in Figure 3: “Six possible flipped purine-pyrimidine mismatches.” One example of such G+C pair is found in the 5S ribosomal RNA (chain 9, G3022—C3026) of Haloarcula marismortui in PDB entry 1vq8.

The G+C pair missing from Saenger's list

The above figure shows clearly that the G+C bp does indeed have two canonical H-bonds between base atoms, and it is difficult to speculate how it escaped Saenger’s selection criteria. In the upcoming new 3DNA component, I am listing this bp as number XXIX (29), along with the other 28 base pairs.





Thank you for printing this article from Please do not forget to visit back for more 3DNA-related information. — Xiang-Jun Lu