Excited States in DNA Strands Investigated by Ultrafast Laser Spectroscopy

  • Jinquan Chen
  • Yuyuan Zhang
  • Bern KohlerEmail author
Part of the Topics in Current Chemistry book series (TOPCURRCHEM, volume 356)


Ultrafast laser experiments on carefully selected DNA model compounds probe the effects of base stacking, base pairing, and structural disorder on excited electronic states formed by UV absorption in single and double DNA strands. Direct π-orbital overlap between two stacked bases in a dinucleotide or in a longer single strand creates new excited states that decay orders of magnitude more slowly than the generally subpicosecond excited states of monomeric bases. Half or more of all excited states in single strands decay in this manner. Ultrafast mid-IR transient absorption experiments reveal that the long-lived excited states in a number of model compounds are charge transfer states formed by interbase electron transfer, which subsequently decay by charge recombination. The lifetimes of the charge transfer states are surprisingly independent of how the stacked bases are oriented, but disruption of π-stacking, either by elevating temperature or by adding a denaturing co-solvent, completely eliminates this decay channel. Time-resolved emission measurements support the conclusion that these states are populated very rapidly from initial excitons. These experiments also reveal the existence of populations of emissive excited states that decay on the nanosecond time scale. The quantum yield of these states is very small for UVB/UVC excitation, but increases at UVA wavelengths. In double strands, hydrogen bonding between bases perturbs, but does not quench, the long-lived excited states. Kinetic isotope effects on the excited-state dynamics suggest that intrastrand electron transfer may couple to interstrand proton transfer. By revealing how structure and non-covalent interactions affect excited-state dynamics, on-going experimental and theoretical studies of excited states in DNA strands can advance understanding of fundamental photophysics in other nanoscale systems.


Base pairing Base stacking Charge transfer state DNA photophysics Excimer Excited-state dynamics Exciton Femtosecond transient absorption Proton-coupled electron transfer 









Adenosine 5′-monophosphate


Adenosine 5′-triphosphate




Complete active space with second-order perturbation theory


Circular dichroism


Conical intersection


Cyclobutane pyrimidine dimer


Charge recombination


Charge transfer


2′-Deoxyadenosine 5′-monophosphate


Density functional theory


Exciton-coupled circular dichroism


Excited-state absorption


Excited-state proton transfer


Electron transfer




Fourier-transformed infrared spectroscopy


Fluorescence upconversion




Ground-state bleaching


Internal conversion


Intermolecular energy transfer


Kinetic isotope effect




8-Oxo-7,8-dihydro-2′-deoxyguanosine (in a DNA sequence)


Proton-coupled electron transfer


Photomultiplier tube


Proton transfer


Quantum mechanical/molecular mechanical


Algebraic diagrammatic construction to second-order with resolution of the identity




Transient absorption


Time-correlated single photon counting


Time-dependent density functional theory


Time-resolved infrared spectroscopy






Vibrational cooling


Vacuum ultraviolet





This work has been supported by grants from the Chemical Structure, Dynamics and Mechanisms Program of the National Science Foundation and from the NASA Astrobiology Program. Many current and former students, postdoctoral researchers, and collaborators have contributed to this work over the past 15 years. Their efforts, which are documented in the papers cited in this chapter, have been indispensible to the success of this work.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemistry and BiochemistryMontana State UniversityBozemanUSA
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA

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