To better understand origin recognition and initiation of DNA replication, we have examined by NMR complexes formed between the origin-binding domain of SV40 T antigen (T-ag-obd), the initiator protein of the SV40 virus, and cognate and noncognate DNA oligomers. The results reveal two structural effects associated with "origin-specific" binding that are absent in nonspecific DNA binding. The first is the formation of a hydrogen bond (H-bond) involving His 203, a residue that genetic studies have previously identified as crucial to both specific and nonspecific DNA binding in full-length T antigen. In free T-ag-obd, the side chain of His 203 has a pKa value of ∼5, titrating to the Nε1H tautomer at neutral pH (Sudmeier, J. L., et al. (1996) J. Magn. Reson., Ser. B 113, 236-247). In complexes with origin DNA, His 203 Nδ1 becomes protonated and remains nontitrating as the imidazolium cation at all pH values from 4 to 8. The H-bonded Nδ1H resonates at 15.9 ppm, an unusually large N-H proton chemical shift, of a magnitude previously observed only in the catalytic triad of serine proteases at low pH. The formation of this H-bond requires the middle G/C base pair of the recognition pentanucleotide, GAGGC. The second structural effect is a selective distortion of the A/T base pair characterized by a large (0.6 ppm) upfield chemical-shift change of its Watson-Crick proton, while nearby H-bonded protons remain relatively unaffected. The results indicate that T antigen, like many other DNA-binding proteins, may employ "catalytic" or "transition-state-like" interactions in binding its cognate DNA (Jen-Jacobson, L. (1997) Biopolymers 44, 153-180), which may be the solution to the well-known paradox between the relatively modest DNA-binding specificity exhibited by initiator proteins and the high specificity of initiation.
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