Different mechanisms have been proposed to account for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) instability based on the presence of short homologous sequences (direct repeats, DR) at the potential boundaries of mtDNA rearrangements. Among them, slippage-mispairing of the replication complex during the asymmetric replication cycle of the mammalian mitochondrial DNA has been proposed to account for the preferential localization of deletions. This mechanism involves a transfer of the replication complex from the first neo-synthesized heavy (H) strand of the DR1, to the DR2, thus bypassing the intervening sequence and producing a deleted molecule. Nevertheless, the nature of the bonds between the DNA strands remains unknown as the forward sequence of DR2, beyond the replication complex, stays double-stranded. Here, we have analyzed the base composition of the DR at the boundaries of mtDNA deletions and duplications and found a skewed pyrimidine content of about 75% in the light-strand DNA template. This suggests the possible building of a DNA triple helix between the G-rich neo-synthesized DR1 and the base-paired homologous G.C-rich DR2. In vitro experiments with the purified human DNA polymerase gamma subunits enabled us to show that the third DNA strand may be used as a primer for DNA replication, using a template with the direct repeat forming a hairpin, with which the primer could initiate DNA replication. These data suggest a novel molecular basis for mitochondrial DNA rearrangements through the distributive nature of the DNA polymerase gamma, at the level of the direct repeats. A general model accounting for large-scale mitochondrial DNA deletion and duplication is proposed. These experiments extend to a DNA polymerase from an eucaryote source the use of a DNA triple helix strand as a primer, like other DNA polymerases from phage and bacterial origins.
(c) 2002 Elsevier Science (USA).