Previously (left), the replisome's two polymerases (green) were assumed to be below the helicase (tan), the enzyme that splits the DNA strands. The new images reveal one polymerase is located at the front of the helicase, causing one strand to loop backward as it is copied (right). [Brookhaven National Laboratory]
Previously (left), the replisome’s two polymerases (green) were assumed to be below the helicase (tan), the enzyme that splits the DNA strands. The new images reveal one polymerase is located at the front of the helicase, causing one strand to loop backward as it is copied (right). [Brookhaven National Laboratory]

It may be time to update biology texts to reflect newly published data from a collaborative team of scientists at Rockefeller University, Stony Brook University, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. Using cutting-edge electron microscopy (EM) techniques, the investigators gathered the first ever images of the fully assembled replisome, providing new insight into the molecular mechanisms of replication.

“Our finding goes against decades of textbook drawings of what people thought the replisome should look like,” remarked co-senior author Michael O'Donnell, Ph.D., professor and head of Rockefeller's Laboratory of DNA Replication. “However, it's a recurring theme in science that nature does not always turn out to work the way you thought it did.”

The researcher’s findings focused on the replisome found in eukaryotic organisms, a category that includes a broad swath of living things, including humans and other multicellular organisms. Over the past several decades, there has been an array of data describing the individual components comprising the complex nature of replisome. Yet, until now no pictures existed to show just how everything fit together.

“This work is a continuation of our long-standing research using electron microscopy to understand the mechanism of DNA replication, an essential function for every living cell,” explained co-senior author Huilin Li, Ph.D., biologist with joint appointments at Brookhaven Lab and Stony Brook University. “These new images show the fully assembled and fully activated 'helicase' protein complex—which encircles and separates the two strands of the DNA double helix as it passes through a central pore in the structure—and how the helicase coordinates with the two 'polymerase' enzymes that duplicate each strand to copy the genome.”

The image and implications from this study were described in a paper entitled “The architecture of a eukaryotic replisome,” published recently through Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

Traditional models of DNA replication show the helicase enzyme moving along the DNA, separating the two strands of the double helix, with two polymerases located at the back where the DNA strand is split. In this configuration, the polymerases would add nucleotides to the side-by-side split ends as they move out of the helicase to form two new complete double helix DNA strands.

However, the images that the researchers collected of intact replisomes revealed that only one of the polymerases is located at the back of the helicase. The other is on the front side of the helicase, where the helicase first encounters the double-stranded helix. This means that while one of the two split DNA strands is acted on by the polymerase at the back end, the other has to thread itself back through or around the helicase to reach the front-side polymerase before having its new complementary strand assembled.

“DNA replication is one of the most fundamental processes of life, so it is every biochemist's dream to see what a replisome looks like,” stated lead author Jingchuan Sun, EM biologist in Dr. Li’s laboratory. “Our lab has expertise and a decade of experience using electron microscopy to study DNA replication, which has prepared us well to tackle the highly mobile therefore very challenging replisome structure. Working together with the O'Donnell lab, which has done beautiful, functional studies on the yeast replisome, our two groups brought perfectly complementary expertise to this project.”

The positioning of one polymerase at the front of the helicase suggests that it may have an unforeseen function—the possibilities of which the collaborative group of scientists is continuing to study. Whatever the function the offset polymerase ends up having, Drs. Li and O’Donnell hope that it will not only provide them better insight into the replication machinery but that they may uncover useful information that can be exploited for disease intervention. 

“Clearly, further studies will be required to understand the functional implications of the unexpected replisome architecture reported here,” the scientists concluded.








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