The covalent attachment of small ubiquitin-like modifier (SUMO) to target proteins regulates numerous nuclear events in eukaryotes, including transcription, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA repair. Despite extensive interest in nuclear pathways within the field of ciliate molecular biology, there have been no investigations of the SUMO pathway in Tetrahymena. The developmental program of sexual reproduction of this organism includes cell pairing, micronuclear meiosis, and the formation of a new somatic macronucleus. We identified the Tetrahymena thermophila SMT3 (SUMO) and UBA2 (SUMO-activating enzyme) genes and demonstrated that the corresponding green fluorescent protein (GFP) tagged gene products are found predominantly in the somatic macronucleus during vegetative growth. Use of an anti-Smt3p antibody to perform immunoblot assays with whole-cell lysates during conjugation revealed a large increase in SUMOylation that peaked during formation of the new macronucleus. Immunofluorescence using the same antibody showed that the increase was localized primarily within the new macronucleus. To initiate functional analysis of the SUMO pathway, we created germ line knockout cell lines for both the SMT3 and UBA2 genes and found both are essential for cell viability. Conditional Smt3p and Uba2p cell lines were constructed by incorporation of the cadmium-inducible metallothionein promoter. Withdrawal of cadmium resulted in reduced cell growth and increased sensitivity to DNA-damaging agents. Interestingly, Smt3p and Uba2p conditional cell lines were unable to pair during sexual reproduction in the absence of cadmium, consistent with a function early in conjugation. Our studies are consistent with multiple roles for SUMOylation in Tetrahymena, including a dynamic regulation associated with the sexual life cycle.
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