We have discovered a new family of retroelements, designated diversity-generating retroelements (DGRs) that function to diversify protein-encoding DNA sequences. The prototype DGR was identified in a bacteriophage genome on the basis of its ability to generate variability in a gene that specifies tropism for receptor molecules on Bordetella species. Bordetella cause respiratory infections in humans and other mammals. Tropism switching is a template-dependent, reverse transcriptase-mediated process that introduces nucleotide substitutions at defined locations within a target gene. This cassette-based mechanism is theoretically capable of generating trillions of different amino acid sequences in a single polypeptide, providing a vast repertoire of potential ligand-receptor interactions. Using the Bordetella phage DGR as a signature, we have identified homologous elements in numerous bacterial genomes. Of particular note are DGRs that are predicted to diversify proteins on the surface of Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron, one of the most abundant members of the gastrointestinal flora, and Treponema denticola, an oral bacterium associated with periodontal disease. Prokaryotic DGRs represent an entirely novel mechanism for generating protein diversity. In addition to their fundamental importance as a newly discovered family of genetic elements and their potential roles in human health and disease, DGRs are of interest as a result of their potential applications.
Our specific aims are to: 1. Conduct a mechanistic analysis of the prototype diversity-generating retroelement present in Bordetella bacteriophage. 2. Probe the receptor repertoire and the structural basis of ligand recognition by a DGR-encoded receptor protein. 3. Investigate DGR function in the human gastrointestinal commensal Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron.
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