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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


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 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


Both proteins and RNAs can misfold into non-functional conformations. Protein chaperones promote native folding of nascent polypeptides and re-folding of misfolded species, thereby buffering mutations that compromise protein structure and function. Here we show that RNA chaperones can also act as mutation buffers that enhance organismal fitness. Using competition assays, we demonstrate that overexpression of select RNA chaperones, including three DEAD box RNA helicases (CsdA, SrmB, RhlB) and the cold shock protein CspA, improves fitness of two independently evolved E. coli mutator strains that have accumulated deleterious mutations during short- and long-term laboratory evolution. We identify strain-specific mutations that are deleterious and subject to buffering when introduced individually into the ancestral genotype. For DEAD box RNA helicases we show that buffering requires helicase activity, implicating RNA structural remodelling in the buffering process. Our results suggest that RNA chaperones might play a fundamental role in RNA evolution and evolvability.

Concepts: Virus, RNA, Helicase, Genetics, Protein, Gene, Evolution, DNA


Studies that elucidate why some human tissues age faster than others may shed light on how we age, and ultimately suggest what interventions may be possible. Here we utilize a recent biomarker of aging (referred to as epigenetic clock) to assess the epigenetic ages of up to 30 anatomic sites from supercentenarians (subjects who reached an age of 110 or older) and younger subjects. Using three novel and three published human DNA methylation data sets, we demonstrate that the cerebellum ages more slowly than other parts of the human body. We used both transcriptional data and genetic data to elucidate molecular mechanisms which may explain this finding. The two largest superfamilies of helicases (SF1 and SF2) are significantly over-represented (p=9.2x10-9) among gene transcripts that are over-expressed in the cerebellum compared to other brain regions from the same subject. Furthermore, SNPs that are associated with epigenetic age acceleration in the cerebellum tend to be located near genes from helicase superfamilies SF1 and SF2 (enrichment p=5.8x10-3). Our genetic and transcriptional studies of epigenetic age acceleration support the hypothesis that the slow aging rate of the cerebellum is due to processes that involve RNA helicases.

Concepts: Molecular biology, Helicase, Gene expression, Transcription, Genetics, Gene, RNA, DNA


The homeostatic maintenance of the genomic DNA is crucial for regulating aging processes. However, the role of RNA homeostasis in aging processes remains unknown. RNA helicases are a large family of enzymes that regulate the biogenesis and homeostasis of RNA. However, the functional significance of RNA helicases in aging has not been explored. Here, we report that a large fraction of RNA helicases regulate the lifespan of Caenorhabditis elegans. In particular, we show that a DEAD-box RNA helicase, helicase 1 (HEL-1), promotes longevity by specifically activating the DAF-16/forkhead box O (FOXO) transcription factor signaling pathway. We find that HEL-1 is required for the longevity conferred by reduced insulin/insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) signaling (IIS) and is sufficient for extending lifespan. We further show that the expression of HEL-1 in the intestine and neurons contributes to longevity. HEL-1 enhances the induction of a large fraction of DAF-16 target genes. Thus, the RNA helicase HEL-1 appears to promote longevity in response to decreased IIS as a transcription coregulator of DAF-16. Because HEL-1 and IIS are evolutionarily well conserved, a similar mechanism for longevity regulation via an RNA helicase-dependent regulation of FOXO signaling may operate in mammals, including humans.

Concepts: Apoptosis, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Helicase, Transcription, RNA, DNA


T helper 17 (TH17) lymphocytes protect mucosal barriers from infections, but also contribute to multiple chronic inflammatory diseases. Their differentiation is controlled by RORγt, a ligand-regulated nuclear receptor. Here we identify the RNA helicase DEAD-box protein 5 (DDX5) as a RORγt partner that coordinates transcription of selective TH17 genes, and is required for TH17-mediated inflammatory pathologies. Surprisingly, the ability of DDX5 to interact with RORγt and coactivate its targets depends on intrinsic RNA helicase activity and binding of a conserved nuclear long noncoding RNA (lncRNA), Rmrp, which is mutated in patients with cartilage-hair hypoplasia. A targeted Rmrp gene mutation in mice, corresponding to a gene mutation in cartilage-hair hypoplasia patients, altered lncRNA chromatin occupancy, and reduced the DDX5-RORγt interaction and RORγt target gene transcription. Elucidation of the link between Rmrp and the DDX5-RORγt complex reveals a role for RNA helicases and lncRNAs in tissue-specific transcriptional regulation, and provides new opportunities for therapeutic intervention in TH17-dependent diseases.

Concepts: Protein, Genetics, Helicase, Gene, Transcription, Gene expression, RNA, DNA