Fast, accurate nucleotide incorporation by polymerases facilitates expression and maintenance of genomes. Many polymerases use conformational dynamics of a conserved α helix to permit efficient nucleotide addition only when the correct nucleotide substrate is bound. This α helix is missing in structures of RNA-dependent RNA polymerases (RdRps) and RTs. Here, we use solution-state nuclear magnetic resonance to demonstrate that the conformation of conserved structural motif D of an RdRp is linked to the nature (correct versus incorrect) of the bound nucleotide and the protonation state of a conserved, motif-D lysine. Structural data also reveal the inability of motif D to achieve its optimal conformation after incorporation of an incorrect nucleotide. Functional data are consistent with the conformational change of motif D becoming rate limiting during and after nucleotide misincorporation. We conclude that motif D of RdRps and, by inference, RTs is the functional equivalent to the fidelity helix of other polymerases.
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