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1.  Comprehensive analysis of the HEPN superfamily: identification of novel roles in intra-genomic conflicts, defense, pathogenesis and RNA processing 
Biology Direct  2013;8:15.
The major role of enzymatic toxins that target nucleic acids in biological conflicts at all levels has become increasingly apparent thanks in large part to the advances of comparative genomics. Typically, toxins evolve rapidly hampering the identification of these proteins by sequence analysis. Here we analyze an unexpectedly widespread superfamily of toxin domains most of which possess RNase activity.
The HEPN superfamily is comprised of all α-helical domains that were first identified as being associated with DNA polymerase β-type nucleotidyltransferases in prokaryotes and animal Sacsin proteins. Using sensitive sequence and structure comparison methods, we vastly extend the HEPN superfamily by identifying numerous novel families and by detecting diverged HEPN domains in several known protein families. The new HEPN families include the RNase LS and LsoA catalytic domains, KEN domains (e.g. RNaseL and Ire1) and the RNase domains of RloC and PrrC. The majority of HEPN domains contain conserved motifs that constitute a metal-independent endoRNase active site. Some HEPN domains lacking this motif probably function as non-catalytic RNA-binding domains, such as in the case of the mannitol repressor MtlR. Our analysis shows that HEPN domains function as toxins that are shared by numerous systems implicated in intra-genomic, inter-genomic and intra-organismal conflicts across the three domains of cellular life. In prokaryotes HEPN domains are essential components of numerous toxin-antitoxin (TA) and abortive infection (Abi) systems and in addition are tightly associated with many restriction-modification (R-M) and CRISPR-Cas systems, and occasionally with other defense systems such as Pgl and Ter. We present evidence of multiple modes of action of HEPN domains in these systems, which include direct attack on viral RNAs (e.g. LsoA and RNase LS) in conjunction with other RNase domains (e.g. a novel RNase H fold domain, NamA), suicidal or dormancy-inducing attack on self RNAs (RM systems and possibly CRISPR-Cas systems), and suicidal attack coupled with direct interaction with phage components (Abi systems). These findings are compatible with the hypothesis on coupling of pathogen-targeting (immunity) and self-directed (programmed cell death and dormancy induction) responses in the evolution of robust antiviral strategies. We propose that altruistic cell suicide mediated by HEPN domains and other functionally similar RNases was essential for the evolution of kin and group selection and cell cooperation. HEPN domains were repeatedly acquired by eukaryotes and incorporated into several core functions such as endonucleolytic processing of the 5.8S-25S/28S rRNA precursor (Las1), a novel ER membrane-associated RNA degradation system (C6orf70), sensing of unprocessed transcripts at the nuclear periphery (Swt1). Multiple lines of evidence suggest that, similar to prokaryotes, HEPN proteins were recruited to antiviral, antitransposon, apoptotic systems or RNA-level response to unfolded proteins (Sacsin and KEN domains) in several groups of eukaryotes.
Extensive sequence and structure comparisons reveal unexpectedly broad presence of the HEPN domain in an enormous variety of defense and stress response systems across the tree of life. In addition, HEPN domains have been recruited to perform essential functions, in particular in eukaryotic rRNA processing. These findings are expected to stimulate experiments that could shed light on diverse cellular processes across the three domains of life.
This article was reviewed by Martijn Huynen, Igor Zhulin and Nick Grishin
PMCID: PMC3710099  PMID: 23768067
2.  Live virus-free or die: coupling of antivirus immunity and programmed suicide or dormancy in prokaryotes 
Biology Direct  2012;7:40.
The virus-host arms race is a major theater for evolutionary innovation. Archaea and bacteria have evolved diverse, elaborate antivirus defense systems that function on two general principles: i) immune systems that discriminate self DNA from nonself DNA and specifically destroy the foreign, in particular viral, genomes, whereas the host genome is protected, or ii) programmed cell suicide or dormancy induced by infection.
Presentation of the hypothesis
Almost all genomic loci encoding immunity systems such as CRISPR-Cas, restriction-modification and DNA phosphorothioation also encompass suicide genes, in particular those encoding known and predicted toxin nucleases, which do not appear to be directly involved in immunity. In contrast, the immunity systems do not appear to encode antitoxins found in typical toxin-antitoxin systems. This raises the possibility that components of the immunity system themselves act as reversible inhibitors of the associated toxin proteins or domains as has been demonstrated for the Escherichia coli anticodon nuclease PrrC that interacts with the PrrI restriction-modification system. We hypothesize that coupling of diverse immunity and suicide/dormancy systems in prokaryotes evolved under selective pressure to provide robustness to the antivirus response. We further propose that the involvement of suicide/dormancy systems in the coupled antivirus response could take two distinct forms:
1) induction of a dormancy-like state in the infected cell to ‘buy time’ for activation of adaptive immunity; 2) suicide or dormancy as the final recourse to prevent viral spread triggered by the failure of immunity.
Testing the hypothesis
This hypothesis entails many experimentally testable predictions. Specifically, we predict that Cas2 protein present in all cas operons is a mRNA-cleaving nuclease (interferase) that might be activated at an early stage of virus infection to enable incorporation of virus-specific spacers into the CRISPR locus or to trigger cell suicide when the immune function of CRISPR-Cas systems fails. Similarly, toxin-like activity is predicted for components of numerous other defense loci.
Implications of the hypothesis
The hypothesis implies that antivirus response in prokaryotes involves key decision-making steps at which the cell chooses the path to follow by sensing the course of virus infection.
This article was reviewed by Arcady Mushegian, Etienne Joly and Nick Grishin. For complete reviews, go to the Reviewers’ reports section.
PMCID: PMC3506569  PMID: 23151069
3.  Polymorphic toxin systems: Comprehensive characterization of trafficking modes, processing, mechanisms of action, immunity and ecology using comparative genomics 
Biology Direct  2012;7:18.
Proteinaceous toxins are observed across all levels of inter-organismal and intra-genomic conflicts. These include recently discovered prokaryotic polymorphic toxin systems implicated in intra-specific conflicts. They are characterized by a remarkable diversity of C-terminal toxin domains generated by recombination with standalone toxin-coding cassettes. Prior analysis revealed a striking diversity of nuclease and deaminase domains among the toxin modules. We systematically investigated polymorphic toxin systems using comparative genomics, sequence and structure analysis.
Polymorphic toxin systems are distributed across all major bacterial lineages and are delivered by at least eight distinct secretory systems. In addition to type-II, these include type-V, VI, VII (ESX), and the poorly characterized “Photorhabdus virulence cassettes (PVC)”, PrsW-dependent and MuF phage-capsid-like systems. We present evidence that trafficking of these toxins is often accompanied by autoproteolytic processing catalyzed by HINT, ZU5, PrsW, caspase-like, papain-like, and a novel metallopeptidase associated with the PVC system. We identified over 150 distinct toxin domains in these systems. These span an extraordinary catalytic spectrum to include 23 distinct clades of peptidases, numerous previously unrecognized versions of nucleases and deaminases, ADP-ribosyltransferases, ADP ribosyl cyclases, RelA/SpoT-like nucleotidyltransferases, glycosyltranferases and other enzymes predicted to modify lipids and carbohydrates, and a pore-forming toxin domain. Several of these toxin domains are shared with host-directed effectors of pathogenic bacteria. Over 90 families of immunity proteins might neutralize anywhere between a single to at least 27 distinct types of toxin domains. In some organisms multiple tandem immunity genes or immunity protein domains are organized into polyimmunity loci or polyimmunity proteins. Gene-neighborhood-analysis of polymorphic toxin systems predicts the presence of novel trafficking-related components, and also the organizational logic that allows toxin diversification through recombination. Domain architecture and protein-length analysis revealed that these toxins might be deployed as secreted factors, through directed injection, or via inter-cellular contact facilitated by filamentous structures formed by RHS/YD, filamentous hemagglutinin and other repeats. Phyletic pattern and life-style analysis indicate that polymorphic toxins and polyimmunity loci participate in cooperative behavior and facultative ‘cheating’ in several ecosystems such as the human oral cavity and soil. Multiple domains from these systems have also been repeatedly transferred to eukaryotes and their viruses, such as the nucleo-cytoplasmic large DNA viruses.
Along with a comprehensive inventory of toxins and immunity proteins, we present several testable predictions regarding active sites and catalytic mechanisms of toxins, their processing and trafficking and their role in intra-specific and inter-specific interactions between bacteria. These systems provide insights regarding the emergence of key systems at different points in eukaryotic evolution, such as ADP ribosylation, interaction of myosin VI with cargo proteins, mediation of apoptosis, hyphal heteroincompatibility, hedgehog signaling, arthropod toxins, cell-cell interaction molecules like teneurins and different signaling messengers.
This article was reviewed by AM, FE and IZ.
PMCID: PMC3482391  PMID: 22731697
4.  Presence of a classical RRM-fold palm domain in Thg1-type 3'- 5'nucleic acid polymerases and the origin of the GGDEF and CRISPR polymerase domains 
Biology Direct  2010;5:43.
Almost all known nucleic acid polymerases catalyze 5'-3' polymerization by mediating the attack on an incoming nucleotide 5' triphosphate by the 3'OH from the growing polynucleotide chain in a template dependent or independent manner. The only known exception to this rule is the Thg1 RNA polymerase that catalyzes 3'-5' polymerization in vitro and also in vivo as a part of the maturation process of histidinyl tRNA. While the initial reaction catalyzed by Thg1 has been compared to adenylation catalyzed by the aminoacyl tRNA synthetases, the evolutionary relationships of Thg1 and the actual nature of the polymerase reaction catalyzed by it remain unclear.
Using sensitive profile-profile comparison and structure prediction methods we show that the catalytic domain Thg1 contains a RRM (ferredoxin) fold palm domain, just like the viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerases, reverse transcriptases, family A and B DNA polymerases, adenylyl cyclases, diguanylate cyclases (GGDEF domain) and the predicted polymerase of the CRISPR system. We show just as in these polymerases, Thg1 possesses an active site with three acidic residues that chelate Mg++ cations. Based on this we predict that Thg1 catalyzes polymerization similarly to the 5'-3' polymerases, but uses the incoming 3' OH to attack the 5' triphosphate generated at the end of the elongating polynucleotide. In addition we identify a distinct set of residues unique to Thg1 that we predict as comprising a second active site, which catalyzes the initial adenylation reaction to prime 3'-5' polymerization. Based on contextual information from conserved gene neighborhoods we show that Thg1 might function in conjunction with a polynucleotide kinase that generates an initial 5' phosphate substrate for it at the end of a RNA molecule. In addition to histidinyl tRNA maturation, Thg1 might have other RNA repair roles in representatives from all the three superkingdoms of life as well as certain large DNA viruses. We also present evidence that among the polymerase-like domains Thg1 is most closely related to the catalytic domains of the GGDEF and CRISPR polymerase proteins.
Based on this relationship and the phyletic patterns of these enzymes we infer that the Thg1 protein is likely to represent an archaeo-eukaryotic branch of the same clade of proteins that gave rise to the mobile CRISPR polymerases and in bacteria spawned the GGDEF domains. Thg1 is likely to be close to the ancestral version of this family of enzymes that might have played a role in RNA repair in the last universal common ancestor.
This article was reviewed by S. Balaji and V.V. Dolja.
PMCID: PMC2904730  PMID: 20591188
5.  OST-HTH: a novel predicted RNA-binding domain 
Biology Direct  2010;5:13.
The mechanism by which the arthropod Oskar and vertebrate TDRD5/TDRD7 proteins nucleate or organize structurally related ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complexes, the polar granule and nuage, is poorly understood. Using sequence profile searches we identify a novel domain in these proteins that is widely conserved across eukaryotes and bacteria.
Using contextual information from domain architectures, sequence-structure superpositions and available functional information we predict that this domain is likely to adopt the winged helix-turn-helix fold and bind RNA with a potential specificity for dsRNA. We show that in eukaryotes this domain is often combined in the same polypeptide with protein-protein- or lipid- interaction domains that might play a role in anchoring these proteins to specific cytoskeletal structures.
Thus, proteins with this domain might have a key role in the recognition and localization of dsRNA, including miRNAs, rasiRNAs and piRNAs hybridized to their targets. In other cases, this domain is fused to ubiquitin-binding, E3 ligase and ubiquitin-like domains indicating a previously under-appreciated role for ubiquitination in regulating the assembly and stability of nuage-like RNP complexes. Both bacteria and eukaryotes encode a conserved family of proteins that combines this predicted RNA-binding domain with a previously uncharacterized domain (DUF88). We present evidence that it is an RNAse belonging to the superfamily that includes the 5'->3' nucleases, PIN and NYN domains and might be recruited to degrade certain RNAs.
This article was reviewed by Sandor Pongor and Arcady Mushegian.
PMCID: PMC2848206  PMID: 20302647
6.  Novel eukaryotic enzymes modifying cell-surface biopolymers 
Biology Direct  2010;5:1.
Eukaryotic extracellular matrices such as proteoglycans, sclerotinized structures, mucus, external tests, capsules, cell walls and waxes contain highly modified proteins, glycans and other composite biopolymers. Using comparative genomics and sequence profile analysis we identify several novel enzymes that could be potentially involved in the modification of cell-surface glycans or glycoproteins.
Using sequence analysis and conservation we define the acyltransferase domain prototyped by the fungal Cas1p proteins, identify its active site residues and unify them to the superfamily of classical 10TM acyltransferases (e.g. oatA). We also identify a novel family of esterases (prototyped by the previously uncharacterized N-terminal domain of Cas1p) that have a similar fold as the SGNH/GDSL esterases but differ from them in their conservation pattern.
We posit that the combined action of the acyltransferase and esterase domain plays an important role in controlling the acylation levels of glycans and thereby regulates their physico-chemical properties such as hygroscopicity, resistance to enzymatic hydrolysis and physical strength. We present evidence that the action of these novel enzymes on glycans might play an important role in host-pathogen interaction of plants, fungi and metazoans. We present evidence that in plants (e.g. PMR5 and ESK1) the regulation of carbohydrate acylation by these acylesterases might also play an important role in regulation of transpiration and stress resistance. We also identify a subfamily of these esterases in metazoans (e.g. C7orf58), which are fused to an ATP-grasp amino acid ligase domain that is predicted to catalyze, in certain animals, modification of cell surface polymers by amino acid or peptides.
This article was reviewed by Gaspar Jekely and Frank Eisenhaber
PMCID: PMC2824669  PMID: 20056006
7.  The signaling helix: a common functional theme in diverse signaling proteins 
Biology Direct  2006;1:25.
The mechanism by which the signals are transmitted between receptor and effector domains in multi-domain signaling proteins is poorly understood.
Using sensitive sequence analysis methods we identify a conserved helical segment of around 40 residues in a wide range of signaling proteins, including numerous sensor histidine kinases such as Sln1p, and receptor guanylyl cyclases such as the atrial natriuretic peptide receptor and nitric oxide receptors. We term this helical segment the signaling (S)-helix and present evidence that it forms a novel parallel coiled-coil element, distinct from previously known helical segments in signaling proteins, such as the Dimerization-Histidine phosphotransfer module of histidine kinases, the intra-cellular domains of the chemotaxis receptors, inter-GAF domain helical linkers and the α-helical HAMP module. Analysis of domain architectures allowed us to reconstruct the domain-neighborhood graph for the S-helix, which showed that the S-helix almost always occurs between two signaling domains. Several striking patterns in the domain neighborhood of the S-helix also became evident from the graph. It most often separates diverse N-terminal sensory domains from various C-terminal catalytic signaling domains such as histidine kinases, cNMP cyclase, PP2C phosphatases, NtrC-like AAA+ ATPases and diguanylate cyclases. It might also occur between two sensory domains such as PAS domains and occasionally between a DNA-binding HTH domain and a sensory domain. The sequence conservation pattern of the S-helix revealed the presence of a unique constellation of polar residues in the dimer-interface positions within the central heptad of the coiled-coil formed by the S-helix.
Combining these observations with previously reported mutagenesis studies on different S-helix-containing proteins we suggest that it functions as a switch that prevents constitutive activation of linked downstream signaling domains. However, upon occurrence of specific conformational changes due to binding of ligand or other sensory inputs in a linked upstream domain it transmits the signal to the downstream domain. Thus, the S-helix represents one of the most prevalent functional themes involved in the flow of signals between modules in diverse prokaryote-type multi-domain signaling proteins.
This article was reviewed by Frank Eisenhaber, Arcady Mushegian and Sandor Pongor.
PMCID: PMC1592074  PMID: 16953892

Results 1-7 (7)