Ultraviolet light is strongly absorbed by DNA, producing excited electronic states that sometimes initiate damaging photochemical reactions. Fully mapping the reactive and nonreactive decay pathways available to excited electronic states in DNA is a decades-old quest. Progress toward this goal has accelerated rapidly in recent years, in large measure because of ultrafast laser experiments. Here we review recent discoveries and controversies concerning the nature and dynamics of excited states in DNA model systems in solution. Nonradiative decay by single, solvated nucleotides occurs primarily on the subpicosecond timescale. Surprisingly, excess electronic energy relaxes one or two orders of magnitude more slowly in DNA oligo- and polynucleotides. Highly efficient nonradiative decay pathways guarantee that most excited states do not lead to deleterious reactions but instead relax back to the electronic ground state. Understanding how the spatial organization of the bases controls the relaxation of excess electronic energy in the double helix and in alternative structures is currently one of the most exciting challenges in the field.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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