Target Site Recognition by a Diversity-Generating Retroelement
Diversity-generating retroelements (DGRs) are in vivo sequence diversification machines that are widely distributed in bacterial, phage, and plasmid genomes. They function to introduce vast amounts of targeted diversity into protein-encoding DNA sequences via mutagenic homing. Adenine residues are converted to random nucleotides in a retrotransposition process from a donor template repeat (TR) to a recipient variable repeat (VR). Using the Bordetella bacteriophage BPP-1 element as a prototype, we have characterized requirements for DGR target site function. Although sequences upstream of VR are dispensable, a 24 bp sequence immediately downstream of VR, which contains short inverted repeats, is required for efficient retrohoming. The inverted repeats form a hairpin or cruciform structure and mutational analysis demonstrated that, while the structure of the stem is important, its sequence can vary. In contrast, the loop has a sequence-dependent function. Structure-specific nuclease digestion confirmed the existence of a DNA hairpin/cruciform, and marker coconversion assays demonstrated that it influences the efficiency, but not the site of cDNA integration. Comparisons with other phage DGRs suggested that similar structures are a conserved feature of target sequences. Using a kanamycin resistance determinant as a reporter, we found that transplantation of the IMH and hairpin/cruciform-forming region was sufficient to target the DGR diversification machinery to a heterologous gene. In addition to furthering our understanding of DGR retrohoming, our results suggest that DGRs may provide unique tools for directed protein evolution via in vivo DNA diversification.