Target site recognition by a diversity-generating retroelement

PLoS Genet. 2011 Dec;7(12):e1002414. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002414. Epub 2011 Dec 15.


Diversity-generating retroelements (DGRs) are in vivo sequence diversification machines that are widely distributed in bacterial, phage, and plasmid genomes. They function to introduce vast amounts of targeted diversity into protein-encoding DNA sequences via mutagenic homing. Adenine residues are converted to random nucleotides in a retrotransposition process from a donor template repeat (TR) to a recipient variable repeat (VR). Using the Bordetella bacteriophage BPP-1 element as a prototype, we have characterized requirements for DGR target site function. Although sequences upstream of VR are dispensable, a 24 bp sequence immediately downstream of VR, which contains short inverted repeats, is required for efficient retrohoming. The inverted repeats form a hairpin or cruciform structure and mutational analysis demonstrated that, while the structure of the stem is important, its sequence can vary. In contrast, the loop has a sequence-dependent function. Structure-specific nuclease digestion confirmed the existence of a DNA hairpin/cruciform, and marker coconversion assays demonstrated that it influences the efficiency, but not the site of cDNA integration. Comparisons with other phage DGRs suggested that similar structures are a conserved feature of target sequences. Using a kanamycin resistance determinant as a reporter, we found that transplantation of the IMH and hairpin/cruciform-forming region was sufficient to target the DGR diversification machinery to a heterologous gene. In addition to furthering our understanding of DGR retrohoming, our results suggest that DGRs may provide unique tools for directed protein evolution via in vivo DNA diversification.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriophages / genetics*
  • Base Sequence
  • Bordetella / genetics*
  • Bordetella / virology
  • DNA, Complementary / genetics
  • DNA, Cruciform / genetics*
  • Genetic Variation
  • Inverted Repeat Sequences / genetics*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Open Reading Frames / genetics
  • Proteins / genetics
  • Retroelements / genetics*
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • DNA, Complementary
  • DNA, Cruciform
  • Proteins
  • Retroelements