Group I Introns and Homing Endonucleases in T-even-like Bacteriophages

University dissertation from Stockholm : Institutionen för molekylärbiologi och funktionsgenomik

Abstract: Homing endonucleases are rare-cutting enzymes that cleave DNA at a site near their own location, preferentially in alleles lacking the homing endonuclease gene (HEG). By cleaving HEG-less alleles the homing endonuclease can mediate the transfer of its own gene to the cleaved site via a process called homing, involving double strand break repair. Via homing, HEGs are efficiently transferred into new genomes when horizontal exchange of DNA occurs between organisms.Group I introns are intervening sequences that can catalyse their own excision from the unprocessed transcript without the need of any proteins. They are widespread, occurring both in eukaryotes and prokaryotes and in their viruses. Many group I introns encode a HEG within them that confers mobility also to the intron and mediates the combined transfer of the intron/HEG to intronless alleles via homing.Bacteriophage T4 contains three such group I introns and at least 12 freestanding HEGs in its genome. The majority of phages besides T4 do not contain any introns, and freestanding HEGs are also scarcely represented among other phages.In the first paper we looked into why group I introns are so rare in phages related to T4 in spite of the fact that they can spread between phages via homing. We have identified the first phage besides T4 that contains all three T-even introns and also shown that homing of at least one of the introns has occurred recently between some of the phages in Nature. We also show that intron homing can be highly efficient between related phages if two phages infect the same bacterium but that there also exists counteracting mechanisms that can restrict the spread of introns between phages. In the second paper we have looked at how the presence of introns can affect gene expression in the phage. We find that the efficiency of splicing can be affected by variation of translation of the upstream exon for all three introns in T4. Furthermore, we find that splicing is also compromised upon infection of stationary-phase bacteria. This is the first time that the efficiency of self-splicing of group I introns has been coupled to environmental conditions and the potential effect of this on phage viability is discussed.In the third paper we have characterised two novel freestanding homing endonucleases that in some T-even-like phages replace two of the putative HEGs in T4. We also present a new theory on why it is a selective advantage for freestanding, phage homing endonucleases to cleave both HEG-containing and HEG-less genomes.