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i-Motifs are alternative DNA secondary structures formed in cytosine-rich sequences. Particular examples of these structures, traditionally assumed to be stable only at acidic pH, have been found to form under near-physiological conditions. To determine the potential impact of these structures on physiological processes, investigation of sequences with the capacity to fold under physiological conditions is required. Here we describe a systematic study of cytosine-rich DNA sequences, with varying numbers of consecutive cytosines, to gain insights into i-motif DNA sequence and structure stability. i-Motif formation was assessed using ultraviolet spectroscopy, circular dichroism and native gel electrophoresis. We found that increasing cytosine tract lengths resulted in increased thermal stability; sequences with at least five cytosines per tract folded into i-motif at room temperature and neutral pH. Using these results, we postulated a folding rule for i-motif formation, analogous to (but different from) that for G-quadruplexes. This indicated that thousands of cytosine-rich sequences in the human genome may fold into i-motif structures under physiological conditions. Many of these were found in locations where structure formation is likely to influence gene expression. Characterization of a selection of these identified i-motif forming sequences uncovered 17 genomic i-motif forming sequence examples which were stable at neutral pH.
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