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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Nov 21, 1995; 92(24): 11095–11099.

Restriction-modification systems as genomic parasites in competition for specific sequences.


Restriction-modification (RM) systems are believed to have evolved to protect cells from foreign DNA. However, this hypothesis may not be sufficient to explain the diversity and specificity in sequence recognition, as well as other properties, of these systems. We report that the EcoRI restriction endonuclease-modification methylase (rm) gene pair stabilizes plasmids that carry it and that this stabilization is blocked by an RM of the same sequence specificity (EcoRI or its isoschizomer, Rsr I) but not by an RM of a different specificity (PaeR7I) on another plasmid. The PaeR7I rm likewise stabilizes plasmids, unless an rm gene pair with identical sequence specificity is present. Our analysis supports the following model for stabilization and incompatibility: the descendants of cells that have lost an rm gene pair expose the recognition sites in their chromosomes to lethal attack by any remaining restriction enzymes unless modification by another RM system of the same specificity protects these sites. Competition for specific sequences among these selfish genes may have generated the great diversity and specificity in sequence recognition among RM systems. Such altruistic suicide strategies, similar to those found in virus-infected cells, may have allowed selfish RM systems to spread by effectively competing with other selfish genes.

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