The RecA protein of Escherichia coli plays essential roles in homologous recombination and restarting stalled DNA replication forks. In vitro, the protein mediates DNA strand exchange between single-stranded (ssDNA) and homologous double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) molecules that serves as a model system for the in vivo processes. To date, no high-resolution structure of the key intermediate, comprised of three DNA strands simultaneously bound to a RecA filament (RecA-tsDNA complex), has been reported. We present a systematic characterization of the helical geometries of the three DNA strands of the RecA-tsDNA complex using fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) under physiologically relevant solution conditions. FRET donor and acceptor dyes were used to label different DNA strands, and the interfluorophore distances were inferred from energy transfer efficiencies measured as a function of the base-pair separation between the two dyes. The energy transfer efficiencies were first measured on a control RecA-dsDNA complex, and the calculated helical parameters (h approximately 5 A, Omega(h) approximately 20 degrees ) were consistent with structural conclusions derived from electron microscopy (EM) and other classic biochemical methods. Measurements of the helical parameters for the RecA-tsDNA complex revealed that all three DNA strands adopt extended and unwound conformations similar to those of RecA-bound dsDNA. The structural data are consistent with the hypothesis that this complex is a late, post-strand-exchange intermediate with the outgoing strand shifted by about three base-pairs with respect to its registry with the incoming and complementary strands. Furthermore, the bases of the incoming and complementary strands are displaced away from the helix axis toward the minor groove of the heteroduplex, and the bases of the outgoing strand lie in the major groove of the heteroduplex. We present a model for the strand exchange intermediate in which homologous contacts preceding strand exchange arise in the minor groove of the substrate dsDNA.
(c) 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd.