The mechanism and dynamics of photoinduced charge separation and charge recombination have been investigated in synthetic DNA hairpins possessing donor and acceptor stilbenes separated by one to seven A:T base pairs. The application of femtosecond broadband pump-probe spectroscopy, nanosecond transient absorption spectroscopy, and picosecond fluorescence decay measurements permits detailed analysis of the formation and decay of the stilbene acceptor singlet state and of the charge-separated intermediates. When the donor and acceptor are separated by a single A:T base pair, charge separation occurs via a single-step superexchange mechanism. However, when the donor and acceptor are separated by two or more A:T base pairs, charge separation occurs via a multistep process consisting of hole injection, hole transport, and hole trapping. In such cases, hole arrival at the electron donor is slower than hole injection into the bridging A-tract. Rate constants for charge separation (hole arrival) and charge recombination are dependent upon the donor-acceptor distance; however, the rate constant for hole injection is independent of the donor-acceptor distance. The observation of crossover from a superexchange to a hopping mechanism provides a "missing link" in the analysis of DNA electron transfer and requires reevaluation of the existing literature for photoinduced electron transfer in DNA.
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