The human protein Rad51 is double-edged in cancer contexts: on one hand, preventing tumourigenesis by eliminating potentially carcinogenic DNA damage and, on the other, promoting tumours by introducing new mutations. Understanding mechanistic details of Rad51 in homologous recombination (HR) and repair could facilitate design of novel methods, including CRISPR, for Rad51-targeted cancer treatment. Despite extensive research, however, we do not yet understand the mechanism of HR in sufficient detail, partly due to complexity, a large number of Rad51 protein units being involved in the exchange of long DNA segments. Another reason for lack of understanding could be that current recognition models of DNA interactions focus only on hydrogen bond-directed base pair formation. A more complete model may need to include, for example, the kinetic effects of DNA base stacking and unstacking (‘longitudinal breathing’). These might explain how Rad51 can recognize sequence identity of DNA over several bases long stretches with high accuracy, despite the fact that a single base mismatch could be tolerated if we consider only the hydrogen bond energy. We here propose that certain specific hydrophobic effects, recently discovered destabilizing stacking of nucleobases, may play a central role in this context for the function of Rad51.