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Concept: Helicase


DEAD-box proteins are the largest family of nucleic acid helicases, and are crucial to RNA metabolism throughout all domains of life. They contain a conserved ‘helicase core’ of two RecA-like domains (domains (D)1 and D2), which uses ATP to catalyse the unwinding of short RNA duplexes by non-processive, local strand separation. This mode of action differs from that of translocating helicases and allows DEAD-box proteins to remodel large RNAs and RNA-protein complexes without globally disrupting RNA structure. However, the structural basis for this distinctive mode of RNA unwinding remains unclear. Here, structural, biochemical and genetic analyses of the yeast DEAD-box protein Mss116p indicate that the helicase core domains have modular functions that enable a novel mechanism for RNA-duplex recognition and unwinding. By investigating D1 and D2 individually and together, we find that D1 acts as an ATP-binding domain and D2 functions as an RNA-duplex recognition domain. D2 contains a nucleic-acid-binding pocket that is formed by conserved DEAD-box protein sequence motifs and accommodates A-form but not B-form duplexes, providing a basis for RNA substrate specificity. Upon a conformational change in which the two core domains join to form a ‘closed state’ with an ATPase active site, conserved motifs in D1 promote the unwinding of duplex substrates bound to D2 by excluding one RNA strand and bending the other. Our results provide a comprehensive structural model for how DEAD-box proteins recognize and unwind RNA duplexes. This model explains key features of DEAD-box protein function and affords a new perspective on how the evolutionarily related cores of other RNA and DNA helicases diverged to use different mechanisms.

Concepts: Helicase, Virus, Transcription, Protein, Metabolism, Enzyme, RNA, DNA


DNA helicases are molecular motors that harness the energy of nucleoside triphosphate hydrolysis to unwinding structured DNA molecules that must be resolved during cellular replication, DNA repair, recombination, and transcription. In vivo, DNA helicases are expected to encounter a wide spectrum of covalent DNA modifications to the sugar phosphate backbone or the nitrogenous bases; these modifications can be induced by endogenous biochemical processes or exposure to environmental agents. The frequency of lesion abundance can vary depending on the lesion type. Certain adducts such as oxidative base modifications can be quite numerous, and their effects can be helix-distorting or subtle perturbations to DNA structure. Helicase encounters with specific DNA lesions and more novel forms of DNA damage will be discussed. We will also review the battery of assays that have been used to characterize helicase-catalyzed unwinding of damaged DNA substrates. Characterization of the effects of specific DNA adducts on unwinding by various DNA repair and replication helicases has proven to be insightful for understanding mechanistic and biological aspects of helicase function in cellular DNA metabolism.

Concepts: DNA replication, Molecular motor, DNA repair, Helicase, Metabolism, Protein, Adenosine triphosphate, DNA


Replicative DNA helicases expose the two strands of the double helix to the replication apparatus, but accessory helicases are often needed to help forks move past naturally occurring hard-to-replicate sites, such as tightly bound proteins, RNA/DNA hybrids, and DNA secondary structures. Although the Schizosaccharomyces pombe 5'-to-3' DNA helicase Pfh1 is known to promote fork progression, its genomic targets, dynamics, and mechanisms of action are largely unknown. Here we address these questions by integrating genome-wide identification of Pfh1 binding sites, comprehensive analysis of the effects of Pfh1 depletion on replication and DNA damage, and proteomic analysis of Pfh1 interaction partners by immunoaffinity purification mass spectrometry. Of the 621 high confidence Pfh1-binding sites in wild type cells, about 40% were sites of fork slowing (as marked by high DNA polymerase occupancy) and/or DNA damage (as marked by high levels of phosphorylated H2A). The replication and integrity of tRNA and 5S rRNA genes, highly transcribed RNA polymerase II genes, and nucleosome depleted regions were particularly Pfh1-dependent. The association of Pfh1 with genomic integrity at highly transcribed genes was S phase dependent, and thus unlikely to be an artifact of high transcription rates. Although Pfh1 affected replication and suppressed DNA damage at discrete sites throughout the genome, Pfh1 and the replicative DNA polymerase bound to similar extents to both Pfh1-dependent and independent sites, suggesting that Pfh1 is proximal to the replication machinery during S phase. Consistent with this interpretation, Pfh1 co-purified with many key replisome components, including the hexameric MCM helicase, replicative DNA polymerases, RPA, and the processivity clamp PCNA in an S phase dependent manner. Thus, we conclude that Pfh1 is an accessory DNA helicase that interacts with the replisome and promotes replication and suppresses DNA damage at hard-to-replicate sites. These data provide insight into mechanisms by which this evolutionarily conserved helicase helps preserve genome integrity.

Concepts: Helicase, Genetics, DNA polymerase, Transcription, DNA replication, Gene, RNA, DNA


During replication initiation, the core component of the helicase-the Mcm2-7 hexamer-is loaded on origin DNA as a double hexamer (DH). The two ring-shaped hexamers are staggered, leading to a kinked axial channel. How the origin DNA interacts with the axial channel is not understood, but the interaction could provide key insights into Mcm2-7 function and regulation. Here, we report the cryo-EM structure of the Mcm2-7 DH on dsDNA and show that the DNA is zigzagged inside the central channel. Several of the Mcm subunit DNA-binding loops, such as the oligosaccharide-oligonucleotide loops, helix 2 insertion loops, and presensor 1 (PS1) loops, are well defined, and many of them interact extensively with the DNA. The PS1 loops of Mcm 3, 4, 6, and 7, but not 2 and 5, engage the lagging strand with an approximate step size of one base per subunit. Staggered coupling of the two opposing hexamers positions the DNA right in front of the two Mcm2-Mcm5 gates, with each strand being pressed against one gate. The architecture suggests that lagging-strand extrusion initiates in the middle of the DH that is composed of the zinc finger domains of both hexamers. To convert the Mcm2-7 DH structure into the Mcm2-7 hexamer structure found in the active helicase, the N-tier ring of the Mcm2-7 hexamer in the DH-dsDNA needs to tilt and shift laterally. We suggest that these N-tier ring movements cause the DNA strand separation and lagging-strand extrusion.

Concepts: DNA sequencing, Mutation, Transcription, Base pair, Helicase, RNA, DNA replication, DNA


Homologous recombination plays a central role in guaranteeing chromosome segregation during meiosis. The precise regulation of the resolution of recombination intermediates is critical for the success of meiosis. Many proteins, including the RECQ DNA helicases (Sgs1/BLM) and Topoisomerase 3α (TOP3α), have essential functions in managing recombination intermediates. However, many other factors involved in this process remain to be defined. Here we report the isolation of meiotic chromosome association 1 (MEICA1), a novel protein participating in meiotic recombination in rice (Oryza sativa). Loss of MEICA1 leads to non-homologous chromosome association, the formation of massive chromosome bridges, and fragmentation. MEICA1 interacts with MSH7, suggesting its role in preventing non-allelic recombination. In addition, MEICA1 has an anti-crossover activity revealed by suppressing the defects of crossover formation in msh5 meica1 compared with that in msh5, showing the similar function with its interacted protein TOP3α. Thus, our data establish two pivotal roles for MEICA1 in meiosis: preventing aberrant meiotic recombination and regulating crossover formation.

Concepts: Helicase, Genetic recombination, Chromosome, DNA repair, Chromosomal crossover, Meiosis, Homologous recombination, DNA


Viral RNA helicases are involved in duplex unwinding during the RNA replication of the virus. It is suggested that these helicases represent very promising antiviral targets. Viruses of the flaviviridae family are the causative agents of many common and devastating diseases, including hepatitis, yellow fever and dengue fever. As there is currently no available anti-Flaviviridae therapy, there is urgent need for the development of efficient anti-viral pharmaceutical strategies. Herein, we report the complete phylogenetic analysis across flaviviridae alongside a more in-depth evolutionary study that revealed a series of conserved and invariant amino acids that are predicted to be key to the function of the helicase. Structural molecular modelling analysis revealed the strategic significance of these residues based on their relative positioning on the 3D structures of the helicase enzymes, which may be used as pharmacological targets. We previously reported a novel series of highly potent HCV helicase inhibitors, and we now re-assess their antiviral potential using the 3D structural model of the invariant helicase residues. It was found that the most active compound of the series, compound C4, exhibited an IC50 in the submicromolar range, whereas its stereoisomer (compound C12) was completely inactive. Useful insights were obtained from molecular modelling and conformational search studies via molecular dynamics simulations. C12 tends to bend and lock in an almost “U” shape conformation, failing to establish vital interactions with the active site of HCV. On the contrary, C4 spends most of its conformational time in a straight, more rigid formation that allows it to successfully block the passage of the oligonucleotide in the ssRNA channel of the HCV helicase. This study paves the way and provides the necessary framework for the in-depth analysis required to enable the future design of new and potent anti-viral agents.

Concepts: Gene, Protein, Transcription, Molecular biology, Virus, DNA, Helicase, RNA


The initiation of eukaryotic DNA replication occurs in two discrete stages: first, the minichromosome maintenance (MCM) complex assembles as a head-to-head double hexamer that encircles duplex replication origin DNA during G1 phase; then, ‘firing factors’ convert each double hexamer into two active Cdc45-MCM-GINS helicases (CMG) during S phase. This second stage requires separation of the two origin DNA strands and remodelling of the double hexamer so that each MCM hexamer encircles a single DNA strand. Here we show that the MCM complex, which hydrolyses ATP during double-hexamer formation, remains stably bound to ADP in the double hexamer. Firing factors trigger ADP release, and subsequent ATP binding promotes stable CMG assembly. CMG assembly is accompanied by initial DNA untwisting and separation of the double hexamer into two discrete but inactive CMG helicases. Mcm10, together with ATP hydrolysis, then triggers further DNA untwisting and helicase activation. After activation, the two CMG helicases translocate in an ‘N terminus-first’ direction, and in doing so pass each other within the origin; this requires that each helicase is bound entirely to single-stranded DNA. Our experiments elucidate the mechanism of eukaryotic replicative helicase activation, which we propose provides a fail-safe mechanism for bidirectional replisome establishment.

Concepts: Chromosome, Origin of replication, Genetics, Helicase, Cell cycle, Adenosine triphosphate, DNA replication, DNA


RecQ4 is a member of the RecQ helicase family, an evolutionarily conserved class of enzymes, dedicated to preserving genomic integrity by operating in telomere maintenance, DNA repair and replication. While reduced RecQ4 activity is associated with cancer predisposition and premature aging, RecQ4 upregulation is related to carcinogenesis and metastasis. Within the RecQ family, RecQ4 assumes an exceptional position, lacking several characteristic RecQ domains. Here we present the crystal structure of human RecQ4, encompassing the conserved ATPase core and a novel C-terminal domain that lacks resemblance to the RQC domain observed in other RecQ helicases. The new domain features a zinc-binding site and two distinct types of winged-helix domains, which are not involved in canonical DNA binding or helicase activity. Based on our structural and functional analysis, we propose that RecQ4 exerts a helicase mechanism, which may be more closely related to bacterial RecQ helicases than to its human family members.

Concepts: Gene, DNA repair, Protein, Senescence, Bacteria, DNA, Evolution, Helicase


The recent explosive outbreak of Zika virus (ZIKV) infection has been reported in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Neonatal microcephaly associated with ZIKV infection has already caused a public health emergency of international concern. No specific vaccines or drugs are currently available to treat ZIKV infection. The ZIKV helicase, which plays a pivotal role in viral RNA replication, is an attractive target for therapy. We determined the crystal structures of ZIKV helicase-ATP-Mn(2+) and ZIKV helicase-RNA. This is the first structure of any flavivirus helicase bound to ATP. Comparisons with related flavivirus helicases have shown that although the critical P-loop in the active site has variable conformations among different species, it adopts an identical mode to recognize ATP/Mn(2+). The structure of ZIKV helicase-RNA has revealed that upon RNA binding, rotations of the motor domains can cause significant conformational changes. Strikingly, although ZIKV and dengue virus (DENV) apo-helicases share conserved residues for RNA binding, their different manners of motor domain rotations result in distinct individual modes for RNA recognition. It suggests that flavivirus helicases could have evolved a conserved engine to convert chemical energy from nucleoside triphosphate to mechanical energy for RNA unwinding, but different motor domain rotations result in variable RNA recognition modes to adapt to individual viral replication.

Concepts: Enzyme, Gene, Transcription, Helicase, Adenosine triphosphate, Virus, RNA, DNA


Survival of Trypanosoma brucei depends upon switches in its protective Variant Surface Glycoprotein (VSG) coat by antigenic variation. VSG switching occurs by frequent homologous recombination, which is thought to require locus-specific initiation. Here, we show that a RecQ helicase, RECQ2, acts to repair DNA breaks, including in the telomeric site of VSG expression. Despite this, RECQ2 loss does not impair antigenic variation, but causes increased VSG switching by recombination, arguing against models for VSG switch initiation through direct generation of a DNA double strand break (DSB). Indeed, we show DSBs inefficiently direct recombination in the VSG expression site. By mapping genome replication dynamics, we reveal that the transcribed VSG expression site is the only telomeric site that is early replicating - a differential timing only seen in mammal-infective parasites. Specific association between VSG transcription and replication timing reveals a model for antigenic variation based on replication-derived DNA fragility.

Concepts: Helicase, Base pair, Transcription, Gene, DNA repair, DNA replication, Genetics, DNA