We have theoretically analyzed Watson-Crick AT and GC base pairs in which purine C8 and/or pyrimidine C6 positions carry a substituent X = H, F, Cl or Br, using the generalized gradient approximation (GGA) of density functional theory at BP86/TZ2P. The purpose is to study the effects on structure and hydrogen bond strength if X = H is substituted by a halogen atom. Furthermore, we wish to explore the relative importance of electrostatic attraction versus orbital interaction in the above multiply hydrogen-bonded systems, using a quantitative bond energy decomposition scheme. We find that replacing X = H by a halogen atom has relatively small yet characteristic effects on hydrogen bond lengths, strengths and bonding mechanism. In general, it reduces the hydrogen-bond- accepting- and increases the hydrogen-bond-donating capabilities of a DNA base. The orbital interaction component in these hydrogen bonds is found for all substituents (X = H, F, Cl, and Br) to contribute about 41% of the attractive interactions and is thus of the same order of magnitude as the electrostatic component, which provides the remaining 59% of the attraction. © 2005 Springer Science + Business Media, Inc.