Serine recombinases are often tightly controlled by elaborate, topologically-defined, nucleoprotein complexes. Hin is a member of the DNA invertase subclass of serine recombinases that are regulated by a remote recombinational enhancer element containing two binding sites for the protein Fis. Two Hin dimers bound to specific recombination sites associate with the Fis-bound enhancer by DNA looping where they are remodeled into a synaptic tetramer competent for DNA chemistry and exchange. Here we show that the flexible beta-hairpin arms of the Fis dimers contact the DNA binding domain of one subunit of each Hin dimer. These contacts sandwich the Hin dimers to promote remodeling into the tetramer. A basic region on the Hin catalytic domain then contacts enhancer DNA to complete assembly of the active Hin tetramer. Our results reveal how the enhancer generates the recombination complex that specifies DNA inversion and regulates DNA exchange by the subunit rotation mechanism.
Many processes in biology rely on enzymes that break both the strands in a DNA molecule, then rearrange the strands, and finally join them back together in a new configuration. These recombination reactions can, for example, change the positions of genetic elements such as enhancers and promoters within the DNA molecule and, therefore, influence how a given gene is expressed as a protein. Cells need to be able to control recombination reactions because they can lead to leukemia and lymphomas if they go wrong.
The enzymes that catalyze these recombination reactions are called recombinases. One type of recombinase binds to specific sequences of DNA bases and uses an amino acid in the enzyme–usually serine or tyrosine–to break and rejoin the DNA strands. Recombination reactions require the assembly of complexes containing many proteins bound to DNA. Tyrosine recombinases form relatively simple protein-DNA complexes, and these have been studied in detail. Serine recombinases, on the other hand, form more elaborate protein-DNA complexes, and much less is known about these.
Now McLean et al. have unraveled the mechanism that a serine recombinase called Hin uses to reverse the direction of a stretch of chromosomal DNA in the bacteria Salmonella enterica. Inverting this stretch of DNA–which contains about 1000 base pairs–changes the position of a gene promoter that is responsible for the production of flagellin, which is the protein that enables the bacterium to move. This is one of the tricks that Salmonella uses to evade the immune system of its host.
Previous research has established that four Hin subunits and two copies of a protein called Fis are needed to invert this stretch of DNA: two Hin subunits bind to each of the two hix recombination sites, and the Fis proteins (which are dimers) bind to each end of an enhancer that is located between the hix sites. A protein called HU then causes the DNA to bend and form a loop, and the four Hin subunits and the two Fis dimers all come together at the enhancer to form a structure called the invertasome where the recombination reaction occurs. All four DNA strands at the crossover point are broken as a result of a near simultaneous attack by the catalytic serine amino acids in the Hin subunits. One pair of Hin subunits–and the two DNA strands attached to them–then rotate by 180 degrees around the other pair of Hin subunits. This means that the stretch of DNA between the hix sites is inverted when the DNA strands are rejoined at the end of the reaction.
Enhancers often regulate transcription and other reactions from a distance. McLean et al. reveal how an enhancer of a DNA recombination reaction works. The pairs of Hin subunits that initially bind to the DNA are not catalytically active, but when they are brought together by the enhancer and form a tetramer, they become active. Two of the Hin subunits are clamped onto the enhancer by the Fis dimers and by directly interacting with the enhancer DNA, but the other two (and the DNA strands attached to them) are free to rotate within the tetramer. In the Salmonella chromosome the enhancer is located close to one of the hix sites (∼100 base pairs away from it), so the length of the DNA between the enhancer and hix site physically limits the number of Hin subunit rotations to just one.