D. Narasimha Rao, Ph.D.
Professor, Dept of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India
Genomics of Restriction-Modification Systems
Restriction endonucleases occur ubiquitously among procaryotic organisms. Up to 1% of the genome of procaryotic organisms is taken up by the genes for these enzymes. Their principal biological function is the protection of the host genome against foreign DNA, in particular bacteriophage DNA. Restriction-modification (R-M) systems are composed of pairs of opposing enzyme activities: an endonuclease and a DNA methyltransferase (MTase). The endonucleases recognise specific sequences and catalyse cleavage of double-stranded DNA. The modification MTases catalyse the addition of a methyl group to one nucleotide in each strand of the recognition sequence using S-adenosyl-L-methionine (AdoMet) as the methyl group donor. Based on their molecular structure, sequence recognition, cleavage position and cofactor requirements, R-M systems are generally classified into three groups. In general R-M systems restrict unmodified DNA, but there are other systems that specifically recognise and cut modified DNA. More than 3500 restriction enzymes have been discovered so far. With the identification and sequencing of a number of R-M systems from bacterial genomes, an increasing number of these have been found that do not seem to fit into the conventional classification.
It is well documented that restriction enzyme genes always lie close to their cognate methyltransferase genes. Analysis of the bacterial and archaeal genome sequences shows that MTase genes are more common than one would have expected on the basis of previous biochemical screening. Frequently, they clearly form part of a R-M system, because the adjacent open reading frames (ORFs) show similarity to known restriction enzyme genes. Very often, though, the adjacent ORFs have no homologs in the GenBank and become candidates either for restriction enzymes with novel specificities or for new examples of previously uncloned specificities. Sequence-dependent modification and restriction forms the foundation of defense against foreign DNAs and thus RM systems may serve as a tool of defense for bacterial cells. RM systems however, sometimes behave as discrete units of life, and any threat to their maintenance, such as a challenge by a competing genetic element can lead to cell death through restriction breakage in the genome, thus providing these systems with a competitive advantage. The RM systems can behave as mobile-genetic elements and have undergone extensive horizontal transfer between genomes causing genome rearrangements. The capacity of RM systems to act as selfish, mobile genetic elements may underlie the structure and function of RM enzymes.
The similarities and differences in the different mechanisms used by restriction enzymes will be discussed. Although it is not clear whether the majority of R-M systems are required for the maintenance of the integrity of the genome or whether they are spreading as selfish genetic elements, they are key players in the “genomic metabolism” of procaryotic organisms. As such they deserve the attention of biologists in general. Finally, restriction enzymes are the work horses of molecular biology. Understanding their enzymology will be advantageous to those who use these enzymes, and essential for those who are devoted to the ambitious goal of changing the properties of these enzymes, and thereby make them even more useful.