The integron is a bacterial recombination system that allows acquisition, stockpiling and expression of cassettes carrying protein-coding sequences, and is responsible for the emergence and rise of multiresistance in Gram-negative bacteria. The functionality of this system depends on the insertion of promoterless cassettes in correct orientation, allowing their expression from the promoter located upstream of the cassette array. Correct orientation is ensured by strand selectivity of integron integrases for the bottom strand of cassette recombination sites (attC), recombined in form of folded single-stranded hairpins. Here, we investigated the basis of such strand selectivity by comparing recombination of wild-type and mutated attC sites with different lengths, sequences and structures. We show that all three unpaired structural features that distinguish the bottom and top strands contribute to strand selectivity. The localization of Extra-Helical Bases (EHBs) directly favors integrase binding to the bottom strand. The Unpaired Central Spacer (UCS) and the Variable Terminal Structure (VTS) influence strand selectivity indirectly, probably through the stabilization of the bottom strand and the resulting synapse due to the nucleotide skew between the two strands. These results underscore the importance of the single-stranded nature of the attC site that allows such tight control over integron cassette orientation.
© The Author(s) 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.