- The two intertwined strands of DNA are held together through base pairing—the formation of hydrogen bonds between bases located opposite each other on the two strands. DNA replication and transcription involve the breaking and re-forming of these hydrogen bonds, but it is difficult to probe these processes directly. For example, conventional DNA spectroscopy1,2,3 is dominated by solvent interactions, crystal modes and collective modes of the DNA backbone; gas-phase studies, in contrast, can in principle measure interactions between individual molecules in the absence of external effects, but require the vaporization of the interacting species without thermal degradation4,5,6,7,8,9. Here we report the generation of gas-phase complexes comprising paired bases, and the spectroscopic characterization of the hydrogen bonding in isolated guanine–cytosine (G–C) and guanine–guanine (G–G) base pairs. We find that the gas-phase G–C base pair adopts a single configuration, which may be Watson–Crick, whereas G–G exists in two different configurations, and we see evidence for proton transfer in the G–C pair, an important step in radiation-induced DNA damage pathways10. Interactions between different bases and between bases and water molecules can also be characterized by our approach, providing stringent tests for high-level ab initio computations that aim to elucidate the fundamental aspects of nucleotide interactions11,12,13.