The thermal denaturation of 8-20-bp DNA duplexes labeled with fluorescein and tetramethylrhodamine at opposing 5'-ends was investigated by monitoring the fluorescence intensity of the dyes, the fluorescence anisotropy of tetramethylrhodamine, the fluorescence resonance energy transfer between fluorescein and rhodamine, and, for the 20-bp duplex, the UV absorption. Melting experiments with the single strands of the duplexes revealed that the single strands can form hairpins stabilized by only a few base pairs. The thermal denaturation curves of the duplexes were fitted well to an extended all-or-none model assuming that only the fully base-paired duplex, the maximally base-paired hairpin, and the random coil conformations are present simultaneously. The extent-of-melting versus temperature curves derived from the different spectroscopic parameters are nearly identical, provided that the analysis of the baselines is carried out correctly; the ΔH and ΔS of the dissociation compare well with predictions based on nearest neighbor interaction values available in the literature. Our results imply that for all the oligonucleotides other than the 34-bp oligomer, no partially melted intermediates other than hairpins are present in the reaction mixture in amounts that can be detected by our methods. The melting of the hairpins was also studied directly using single-stranded oligonucleotides. The melting of a 34-bp duplex can be accounted for by a statistical zipper model.
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