Effects of the universal base 5-nitroindole on the thermodynamic stability of DNA hairpins having a 6 bp stem and four base loops were investigated by optical absorbance and differential scanning calorimetry techniques. Melting studies were conducted in buffer containing 115 mM Na(+). Five different modified versions of DNA hairpins containing a 5-nitroindole base or bases substituted at different positions in the stem and loop regions were examined. Thermo-dynamic parameters of the melting transitions estimated from a two-state analysis of optical melting curves and measured directly by calorimetry revealed that the presence of 5-nitroindole bases in the duplex stem or loop regions of short DNA hairpins significantly affects both their enthalpic and entropic melting components in a compensating manner, while the transition free energy varies linearly with the transition temperature. The calorimetrically determined enthalpy and entropy values of the modified hairpins were considerably smaller (43-53%) than the two-state optical parameters, suggesting that solvent effects may be significant in the melting processes of these hairpins. Results of circular dichroism measurements also revealed slight differences between the modified hairpins and the control in both the duplex and melted states, suggesting subtle structural differences between the control and DNA hairpins containing a 5-nitroindole base or bases.