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DNA is always shaped like a double helix. But could you flatten the double helix (which is essentially just a twisted ladder) and would DNA still be able to duplicate and control cells?

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    $\begingroup$ The double helix is the thermodynamically favourable conformation. You can possibly flatten it but it would consume energy. In general, the DNA does get unwound during translation and replication. As a part of the site policy, we insist that users put in some research effort from their side before asking. Provide a reasonable background and rationale for your question. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG May 9 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ What precisely do you mean by “could you”? Being too large to crawl into a cell, I certainly couldn’t. And what do you mean by “flatten”. In the literal English meaning of the word this would violate the laws of chemistry, and if you don’t appreciate this you shouldn’t be posting here. If you mean unwind the helix, keeping the strands parallel, say so. But please take the trouble to express and explain yourself clearly. $\endgroup$ – David May 11 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ And DNA is not always shaped like a double helix, as you say. There bacteriophages with single-stranded DNA genomes. $\endgroup$ – David May 11 at 19:46
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Flattening the double helix, i.e. making it look like a ladder (like in the usual diagrams of DNA, shown in the first figure below), would not be possible because of bond angles.

Flat ladder

Figure 1

3D structure

Figure 2

The only way for everything to be flattened out completely (as in Figure 1), is for all the bonds to be planar. However, we know that this is not true, as the C1 (carbon 1) is sp3 hybridised, not sp2, which means that the bond from the sugar to the nitrogenous base is not planar. The bond with the phosphates is also not planar. Hence it would be impossible to flatten DNA out like paper.

Moreover, there are relatively strong London dispersion forces between the layers of bases in the 3D structure (helical form). You can see on Figure 2 that the bases lie parallel to each other in each "step" of the helix. This adds to the stability of the molecule.

To answer your second question about whether DNA would be functional if flattened out, the answer would be no. The helical shape of DNA means that there is a minor groove and major groove, which is a property of its 3D shape. This is where proteins bind, which will help the process of replication (duplication) and transcription ("controlling" cells).

Major minor grooves

Figure 3

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would DNA still be able to duplicate and control cells

The structure of DNA in a cell is more complicated than a double helix and its structure determines its function. DNA gets bundled up into chromatin, made up of units of nucleosomes: DNA wrapped around histone proteins.

Specific histones are chemically modified to allow the DNA inside to be unpacked, to "open up" the DNA to transcriptional machinery to generate specific proteins. The segments of DNA that open up are dependent on the type of cell — heart, brain, kidney, etc.

While an input of energy might allow DNA to be stretched out flat, it would almost certainly prevent cell-type specific proteins from being made, which rely on the condensed, three-dimensional structure of chromatin to regulate gene expression.

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  • $\begingroup$ This only applies to eukaryotes and is therefore irrelevant to the question, which is badly thought out and is best ignored. $\endgroup$ – David May 11 at 19:35

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