We have discovered a well-defined extended conformation of double-stranded DNA, which we call Σ-DNA, using laser-tweezers force-spectroscopy experiments. At a transition force corresponding to free energy change ΔG = 1·57 ± 0·12 kcal (mol base pair)−1 60 or 122 base-pair long synthetic GC-rich sequences, when pulled by the 3′−3′ strands, undergo a sharp transition to the 1·52 ± 0·04 times longer Σ-DNA. Intriguingly, the same degree of extension is also found in DNA complexes with recombinase proteins, such as bacterial RecA and eukaryotic Rad51. Despite vital importance to all biological organisms for survival, genome maintenance and evolution, the recombination reaction is not yet understood at atomic level. We here propose that the structural distortion represented by Σ-DNA, which is thus physically inherent to the nucleic acid, is related to how recombination proteins mediate recognition of sequence homology and execute strand exchange. Our hypothesis is that a homogeneously stretched DNA undergoes a ‘disproportionation’ into an inhomogeneous Σ-form consisting of triplets of locally B-like perpendicularly stacked bases. This structure may ensure improved fidelity of base-pair recognition and promote rejection in case of mismatch during homologous recombination reaction. Because a triplet is the length of a gene codon, we speculate that the structural physics of nucleic acids may have biased the evolution of recombinase proteins to exploit triplet base stacks and also the genetic code.