Pauling's triplex model of nucleic acids is available in 3DNA

In 1953, Pauling and Corey published an influential paper, titled A proposed structure for the nucleic acids, in Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (PNAS). Key features of the proposed model is summarized in their Letter to Nature, Structure of the Nucleic Acids, published in Nature on February 21, 1953.

We have formulated a structure for the nucleic acids which is compatible with the main features of the X-ray diagram and with the general principles of molecular structure, and which accounts satisfactorily for some of the chemical properties of the substances. The structure involves three intertwined helical polynucleotide chains. Each chain, which is formed by phosphate di-ester groups and linking β-D-ribofuranose or β-D-deoxyribofuranose residues with 3′, 5′ linkages, has approximately twenty-four nucleotide residues in seven turns of the helix. The helixes have the sense of a right-handed screw. The phosphate groups are closely packed about the axis of the molecule, with the pentose residues surrounding them, and the purine and pyrimidine groups projecting radially, their planes being approximately perpendicular to the molecular axis. The operation that converts one residue to the next residue in the polynucleotide chain is rotation by about 105° and translation by 3.4 Å.

This triplex model of nucleic acids, with phosphates in the center and bases on the outside, turned out to be fundamentally flawed. Yet, it played a significant role by prompting Watson and Crick in their discovery of the DNA double helix structure. While I’ve been aware of the Pauling triplex model from long ago, I had not read the original Pauling & Corey PNAS paper. Not surprisingly, I did not know what the triplex structure really looks like, other than some general ideas.

In a recent trip to Rutgers, Dr. Wilma Olson and I discussed the applications of fiber models collected in 3DNA. She drew my attention to the Pauling triplex model, and showed me Table 1 of the PNAS paper (see below), where the atomic coordinates for a nucleic acid repeating unit are listed.

Atomic coordinates of the Pauling triplex

The cylindrical format is the same as that for the fiber models in 3DNA. It thus seems fitting to add this historically significant triplex model to the collection. Googling revealed many interesting historical notes and comments, e.g. The Pauling-Corey Structure of DNA, and a short video Linus Pauling’s triple DNA helix model, 3D animation with basic narration. However, I failed to find a program that I can use to generate such a triplex model with generic base sequence. I decided to add the fiber --pauling option so users can easily create such a triplex model in 3D, just as they do for a classic A- and B-DNA duplex. This process has turned out to be very educational (detailed below), and the end result should be of general interest.

3D image of the repeating unit (cytosine) in Pauling triplex

  • The left 3D image shows the nomenclature of atoms used by Pauling & Corey (see Table 1 above), which is dramatically different from current conventions. As an example, it should be the N1 atom of cytosine (a pyrimidine base), not N3, that is connected to the sugar C1′ atom in nowadays nomenclature. The corrections apply not only to base atoms, but also to the sugar and phosphate groups. The revised atom labeling (as used in the PDB) is illustrated in the 3D image on the right.
  • Table 1 corresponds to the ribose sugar since it contains an O2′ atom (see also the figure above). The triplex model constructed would be RNA, but can be ‘converted’ to DNA by simply removing the O2′ atom (see below).
  • Only the atomic coordinates for cytosine are listed in Table 1. The 3DNA mutate_bases program came handy to get the corresponding atomic coordinates for A, G, T, and U. This expansion allows for the generation of Pauling’s triplex models with an arbitrary combination of the five common bases (A, C, G, T, and U).
  • With the new fiber --pauling option, now users can conveniently generate a Pauling’s triplex RNA/DNA model as shown below. Note that the one dash variant -pauling also works fine, with the additional -dna for DNA deoxyribose sugar. The PDB file (Pauling-triplex-mixed.pdb) with mixed DNA sequences can be downloaded, and the corresponding 3D image in top and side views is shown in the following figure.
        fiber -pauling triplex-C10C10C10.pdb        # default: 10 Cs per strand
        fiber -pauling -seq=AAA triplex-A3A3A3.pdb  # 3 As per strand
        fiber -pauling -seq=AAAA:CCCC:GGGG Pauling-triplex-A4C4G4.pdb
        fiber -pauling -seq=ACGGUU,UUGGAC,GGAACC  Pauling-triplex-mixed.pdb
        fiber --pauling-dna -seq=ACGGTT,TTGGAC,GGAACC  Pauling-triplex-DNA.pdb

Sample Pauling DNA triplex generated with 3DNA

  • With 3DNA’s find_pair/analyze pair of programs, one can get the structural parameters corresponding to the Pauling triplex model. Not surprising, the repeating dinucleotide along each strand has a twist of 105°, and a rise of 3.4 Å. Notably, the sugar has a C2′-endo conformation.




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