Genetic competence is a process in which cells are able to take up DNA from their environment, resulting in horizontal gene transfer, a major mechanism for generating diversity in bacteria. Many bacteria carry homologs of the central DNA uptake machinery that has been well characterized in Bacillus subtilis It has been postulated that the B. subtilis competence helicase ComFA belongs to the DEAD box family of helicases/translocases. Here, we made a series of mutants to analyze conserved amino acid motifs in several regions of B. subtilis ComFA. First, we confirmed that ComFA activity requires amino acid residues conserved among the DEAD box helicases, and second, we show that a zinc finger-like motif consisting of four cysteines is required for efficient transformation. Each cysteine in the motif is important, and mutation of at least two of the cysteines dramatically reduces transformation efficiency. Further, combining multiple cysteine mutations with the helicase mutations shows an additive phenotype. Our results suggest that the helicase and metal binding functions are two distinct activities important for ComFA function during transformation.IMPORTANCE ComFA is a highly conserved protein that has a role in DNA uptake during natural competence, a mechanism for horizontal gene transfer observed in many bacteria. Investigation of the details of the DNA uptake mechanism is important for understanding the ways in which bacteria gain new traits from their environment, such as drug resistance. To dissect the role of ComFA in the DNA uptake machinery, we introduced point mutations into several motifs in the protein sequence. We demonstrate that several amino acid motifs conserved among ComFA proteins are important for efficient transformation. This report is the first to demonstrate the functional requirement of an amino-terminal cysteine motif in ComFA.
Keywords: ATPase; Bacillus subtilis; DEXD/DEXH box; genetic competence; helicase; natural transformation systems; transformation.
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