The topological mechanism of phage lambda integrase

J Mol Biol. 1999 Jun 18;289(4):747-75. doi: 10.1006/jmbi.1999.2771.


Bacteriophage lambda integrase (Int) is a versatile site-specific recombinase. In concert with other proteins, it mediates phage integration into and excision out of the bacterial chromosome. Int recombines intramolecular sites in inverse or direct orientation or sites on separate DNA molecules. This wide spectrum of Int-mediated reactions has, however, hindered our understanding of the topology of Int recombination. By systematically analyzing the topology of Int reaction products and using a mathematical method called tangles, we deduce a unified model for Int recombination. We find that, even in the absence of (-) supercoiling, all Int reactions are chiral, producing one of two possible enantiomers of each product. We propose that this chirality reflects a right-handed DNA crossing within or between recombination sites in the synaptic complex that favors formation of right-handed Holliday junction intermediates. We demonstrate that the change in linking number associated with excisive inversion with relaxed DNA is equally +2 and -2, reflecting two different substrates with different topology but the same chirality. Additionally, we deduce that integrative Int recombination differs from excisive recombination only by additional plectonemic (-) DNA crossings in the synaptic complex: two with supercoiled substrates and one with relaxed substrates. The generality of our results is indicated by our finding that two other members of the integrase superfamily of recombinases, Flp of yeast and Cre of phage P1, show the same intrinsic chirality as lambda Int.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriophage P1 / enzymology
  • Bacteriophage lambda / enzymology*
  • Chromosome Inversion
  • DNA Nucleotidyltransferases / metabolism
  • Integrases / chemistry
  • Integrases / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Protein Conformation
  • Recombination, Genetic*
  • Substrate Specificity
  • Viral Proteins*
  • Virus Integration


  • Viral Proteins
  • Cre recombinase
  • DNA Nucleotidyltransferases
  • FLP recombinase
  • Integrases