Adaptation of intronic homing endonuclease for successful horizontal transmission


T. Ohama, Department of Environmental Systems Engineering, Kochi University of Technology (KUT), Tosayamada, Kochi 782–8502, Japan
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Group I introns are thought to be self-propagating mobile elements, and are distributed over a wide range of organisms through horizontal transmission. Intron invasion is initiated through cleavage of a target DNA by a homing endonuclease encoded in an open reading frame (ORF) found within the intron. The intron is likely of no benefit to the host cell and is not maintained over time, leading to the accumulation of mutations after intron invasion. Therefore, regular invasional transmission of the intron to a new species at least once before its degeneration is likely essential for its evolutionary long-term existence. In many cases, the target is in a protein-coding region which is well conserved among organisms, but contains ambiguity at the third nucleotide position of the codon. Consequently, the homing endonuclease might be adapted to overcome sequence polymorphisms at the target site. To address whether codon degeneracy affects horizontal transmission, we investigated the recognition properties of a homing enzyme, I-CsmI, that is encoded in the intronic ORF of a group I intron located in the mitochondrial COB gene of the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas smithii. We successfully expressed and purified three types of N-terminally truncated I-CsmI polypeptides, and assayed the efficiency of cleavage for 81 substrates containing single nucleotide substitutions. We found a slight but significant tendency that I-CsmI cleaves substrates containing a silent or tolerated amino acid change more efficiently than nonsilent or nontolerated ones. The published recognition properties of I-SpomI, I-ScaI, and I-SceII were reconsidered from this point of view, and we detected proficient adaptation of I-SpomI, I-ScaI, and I-SceII for target site sequence degeneracy. Based on the results described above, we propose that intronic homing enzymes are adapted to cleave sequences that might appear at the target region in various species, however, such adaptation becomes less prominent in proportion to the time elapsed after intron invasion into a new host.