Self-splicing inteins are mobile genetic elements invading host genes via nested homing endonuclease (HEN) domains. All HEN domains residing within inteins are inserted at a highly conserved insertion site. A purifying selection mechanism directing the location of the HEN insertion site has not yet been identified. In this work, we solved the three-dimensional crystal structures of two inteins inserted in the cell division control protein 21 of the hyperthermophilic archaea Pyrococcus abyssi and Pyrococcus horikoshii. A comparison between the structures provides the structural basis for the thermo-stabilization mechanism of inteins that have lost the HEN domain during evolution. The presence of an entire extein domain in the intein structure from Pyrococcus horikoshii suggests the selection mechanism for the highly conserved HEN insertion point.
Keywords: Homing endonuclease; Horizontal gene transfer; Hyperthermophiles; Inteins; Protein splicing.