Minute difference in free energy change of unfolding among structures in an oligonucleotide sequence can lead to a complex population equilibrium, which is rather challenging for ensemble techniques to decipher. Herein, we introduce a new method, molecular population dynamics (MPD), to describe the intricate equilibrium among non-B deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) structures. Using mechanical unfolding in laser tweezers, we identified six DNA species in a cytosine (C)-rich bcl-2 promoter sequence. Population patterns of these species with and without a small molecule (IMC-76 or IMC-48) or the transcription factor hnRNP LL are compared to reveal the MPD of different species. With a pattern recognition algorithm, we found that IMC-48 and hnRNP LL share 80% similarity in stabilizing i-motifs with 60 s incubation. In contrast, IMC-76 demonstrates an opposite behavior, preferring flexible DNA hairpins. With 120-180 s incubation, IMC-48 and hnRNP LL destabilize i-motifs, which has been previously proposed to activate bcl-2 transcriptions. These results provide strong support, from the population equilibrium perspective, that small molecules and hnRNP LL can modulate bcl-2 transcription through interaction with i-motifs. The excellent agreement with biochemical results firmly validates the MPD analyses, which, we expect, can be widely applicable to investigate complex equilibrium of biomacromolecules.
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