Balance of Attraction and Repulsion in Nucleic-Acid Base Stacking: CCSD(T)/Complete-Basis-Set-Limit Calculations on Uracil Dimer and a Comparison with the Force-Field Description

We have carried out reference quantum-chemical calculations for about 100 geometries of the uracil dimer in stacked conformations. The calculations have been specifically aimed at geometries with unoptimized distances between the monomers including geometries with mutually tilted monomers. Such geometries are characterized by a delicate balance between local steric clashes and local unstacking and had until now not been investigated using reference quantum-mechanics (QM) methods. Nonparallel stacking geometries often occur in nucleic acids and are of decisive importance, for example, for local conformational variations in B-DNA. Errors in the short-range repulsion region would have a major impact on potential energy scans which were often used in the past to investigate local geometry variations in DNA. An incorrect description of such geometries may also partially affect molecular dynamics (MD) simulations in applications when quantitative accuracy is required. The reference QM calculations have been carried out using the MP2 method extrapolated to the complete basis-set limit and corrected for higher-order electron-correlation contributions using CCSD(T) calculations with a medium-sized basis set. These reference calculations have been used as benchmark data to test the performance of the DFT-D, SCS(MI)-MP2, and DFT-SAPT QM methods and of the AMBER molecular-mechanics (MM) force field. The QM methods show close to quantitative agreement with the reference data, albeit the DFT-D method tends to modestly exaggerate the repulsion of steric clashes. The force field in general also provides a good description of base stacking for the systems studied here. However, for geometries with close interatomic contacts and clashes, the repulsion effects are rather severely exaggerated. The discrepancy reported here should not affect the overall stability of MD simulations and qualitative applications of the force field. However, it may affect the description of subtle quantitative effects such as the local conformational variations in B-DNA. Preliminary calculations for two H-bonded uracil base pairs, including one with a C−H···O H-bond, indicate excellent performance of the tested QM methods for all intermonomer distances. The force field, on the other hand, is less satisfactory, especially in the repulsive regions.