CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Researchers report that a single-stranded DNA-binding protein (SSB), once thought to be a static player among the many molecules that interact with DNA, actually moves back and forth along single-stranded DNA, gradually allowing other proteins to repair, recombine or replicate the strands.
Their study, of SSB in the bacterium Escherichia coli, appears today in the journal Nature.
Whenever the double helix of DNA unravels, exposing each strand to the harsh environment of the cell, SSB is usually first on the scene, said University of Illinois physics professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Taekjip Ha, who led the study.
Although DNA unwinding is necessary for replication or recombination, it is normally a transient process, he said. Exposed single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) can be damaged or degraded by enzymes in the cell. Damaged DNA may also come unwound, and ssDNA can bond to itself, forming hairpin loops and other problematic structures.
"If you have lots of single-stranded DNA in the cell, basically it's a sign of trouble," Ha said. "SSB needs to come and bind to it to protect it from degradation and to control what kind of proteins have access to the single-stranded DNA."
Although other proteins are known to travel along double-stranded DNA, this is the first study to find a protein that migrates back and forth randomly on single-stranded DNA, Ha said.
Other researchers had assumed that SSB simply bound to DNA where it was needed and then fell off when its job was done. But a collaborator on the new study who has studied SSB for two decades, Timothy Lohman, of Washington University School of Medicine, suspected that the protein's interaction with DNA was more dynamic. That hunch turned out to be true, Ha said.
The SSB protein is made up of four identical subunits. Single-stranded DNA loops around and through them in a pattern "that looks like the s
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign