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Mol Microbiol. 1999 Dec;34(5):867-77.

Helicase motifs: the engine that powers DNA unwinding.

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Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.


Helicases play essential roles in nearly all DNA metabolic transactions and have been implicated in a variety of human genetic disorders. A hallmark of these enzymes is the existence of a set of highly conserved amino acid sequences termed the 'helicase motifs' that were hypothesized to be critical for helicase function. These motifs are shared by another group of enzymes involved in chromatin remodelling. Numerous structure-function studies, targeting highly conserved residues within the helicase motifs, have been instrumental in uncovering the functional significance of these regions. Recently, the results of these mutational studies were augmented by the solution of the three-dimensional crystal structure of three different helicases. The structural model for each helicase revealed that the conserved motifs are clustered together, forming a nucleotide-binding pocket and a portion of the nucleic acid binding site. This result is gratifying, as it is consistent with structure-function studies suggesting that all the conserved motifs are involved in the nucleotide hydrolysis reaction. Here, we review helicase structure-function studies in the light of the recent crystal structure reports. The current data support a model for helicase action in which the conserved motifs define an engine that powers the unwinding of duplex nucleic acids, using energy derived from nucleotide hydrolysis and conformational changes that allow the transduction of energy between the nucleotide and nucleic acid binding sites. In addition, this ATP-hydrolysing engine is apparently also associated with proteins involved in chromatin remodelling and provides the energy required to alter protein-DNA structure, rather than duplex DNA or RNA structure.

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