A novel family of potentially mobile DNA elements encoding site-specific gene-integration functions: integrons



A family of novel mobile DNA elements is described, examples of which are found at several independent locations and encode a variety of antibiotic resistance genes. The complete elements consist of two conserved segments separated by a segment of variable length and sequence which includes inserted antibiotic resistance genes. The conserved segment located 3′ to the inserted resistance genes was sequenced from Tn21 and R46, and the sequences are identical over a region of 2026 bases, which includes the sulphonamide resistance gene sull, and two further open reading frames of unknown function. The complete sequences of both the 3′ and 5′ conserved regions of the DNA element have been determined. A 59-base sequence element, found at the junctions of inserted DNA sequences and the conserved 3′ segment, is also present at this location in the R46 sequence. A copy of one half of this 59-base element is found at the end of the sull gene, suggesting that sull, though part of the conserved region, was also originally inserted into an ancestral element by site-specific integration. Inverted or direct terminal repeats or short target site duplications, both of which are characteristics of class I and class II transposons, are not found at the outer boundaries of the elements described here. Furthermore, the conserved regions do not encode any proteins related to known transposition proteins, except the DNA integrase encoded by the 5′ conserved region which is implicated in the gene insertion process. Mobilization of this element has not been observed experimentally; mobility is implied from the identification of the element in at least four independent locations, in Tn21, R46 (IncN), R388 (IncW) and Tn1696. The definitive features of these novel elements are (i) that they include site-specific integration functions (the Integrase and the insertion site); (ii) that they are able to acquire various gene units and act as an expression cassette by supplying the promoter for the inserted genes. As a consequence of acquiring different inserted genes, the element exists in a variety of forms which differ in the number and nature of the inserted genes. This family of elements appears formally distinct from other known mobile DNA elements and we propose the name DNA integration elements, or integrons.