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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jan 7;111(1):397-402. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318843111. Epub 2013 Dec 24.

An amphioxus RAG1-like DNA fragment encodes a functional central domain of vertebrate core RAG1.

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  • 1State Key Laboratory of Cell Biology, Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai 200031, China.


The highly diversified repertoire of antigen receptors in the vertebrate immune system is generated via proteins encoded by the recombination activating genes (RAGs) RAG1 and RAG2 by a process known as variable, diversity, and joining [V(D)J] gene recombination. Based on the study of vertebrate RAG proteins, many hypotheses have been proposed regarding the origin and evolution of RAG. This issue remains unresolved, leaving a significant gap in our understanding of the evolution of adaptive immunity. Here, we show that the amphioxus genome contains an ancient RAG1-like DNA fragment (bfRAG1L) that encodes a virus-related protein that is much shorter than vertebrate RAG1 and harbors a region homologous to the central domain of core RAG1 (cRAG1). bfRAG1L also contains an unexpected retroviral type II nuclease active site motif, DXN(D/E)XK, and is capable of degrading both DNA and RNA. Moreover, bfRAG1L shares important functional properties with the central domain of cRAG1, including interaction with RAG2 and localization to the nucleus. Remarkably, the reconstitution of bfRAG1L into a cRAG1-like protein yielded an enzyme capable of recognizing recombination signal sequences and performing V(D)J recombination in the presence of mouse RAG2. Moreover, this reconstituted cRAG1-like protein could mediate the assembly of antigen receptor genes in RAG1-deficient mice. Together, our results demonstrate that amphioxus bfRAG1L encodes a protein that is functionally equivalent to the central domain of cRAG1 and is well prepared for further evolution to mediate V(D)J recombination. Thus, our findings provide unique insights into the evolutionary origin of RAG1.

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