Melting and unzipping of DNA
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Existing experimental studies of the thermal denaturation of DNA yield sharp steps in the melting curve suggesting that the melting transition is first order. This transition has been theoretically studied since the early sixties, mostly within an approach in which the microscopic configurations of a DNA molecule consist of an alternating sequence of non-interacting bound segments and denaturated loops. Studies of these models neglect the repulsive, self-avoiding, interaction between different loops and segments and have invariably yielded continuous denaturation transitions. In the present study we take into account in an approximate way the excluded-volume interaction between denaturated loops and the rest of the chain. This is done by exploiting recent results on scaling properties of polymer networks of arbitrary topology. We also ignore the heterogeneity of the polymer. We obtain a first-order melting transition in d = 2 dimensions and above, consistent with the experimental results. We also consider within our approach the unzipping transition, which takes place when the two DNA strands are pulled apart by an external force acting on one end. We find that the under equilibrium condition the unzipping transition is also first order. Although the denaturation and unzipping transitions are thermodynamically first order, they do exhibit critical fluctuations in some of their properties. For instance, the loop size distribution decays algebraically at the transition and the length of the denaturated end segment diverges as the transition is approached. We evaluate these critical properties within our approach.
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