DNA strand exchange plays a central role in genetic recombination across all kingdoms of life, but the physical basis for these reactions remains poorly defined. Using single-molecule imaging, we found that bacterial RecA and eukaryotic Rad51 and Dmc1 all stabilize strand exchange intermediates in precise three-nucleotide steps. Each step coincides with an energetic signature (0.3 kBT) that is conserved from bacteria to humans. Triplet recognition is strictly dependent on correct Watson-Crick pairing. Rad51, RecA, and Dmc1 can all step over mismatches, but only Dmc1 can stabilize mismatched triplets. This finding provides insight into why eukaryotes have evolved a meiosis-specific recombinase. We propose that canonical Watson-Crick base triplets serve as the fundamental unit of pairing interactions during DNA recombination.
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