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FEMS Microbiol Rev. 2019 Mar 1;43(2):109-122. doi: 10.1093/femsre/fuy036.

DNA phosphorothioate modification-a new multi-functional epigenetic system in bacteria.

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Zhongnan Hospital, Wuhan University, 169 Donghu Road, Wuhan 430071, China.
Key Laboratory of Combinatorial Biosynthesis and Drug Discovery, Ministry of Education, School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Wuhan University, 185 Donghu Road, Wuhan 430071, China.
Department of Biological Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Masschusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.


Synthetic phosphorothioate (PT) internucleotide linkages, in which a nonbridging oxygen is replaced by a sulphur atom, share similar physical and chemical properties with phosphodiesters but confer enhanced nuclease tolerance on DNA/RNA, making PTs a valuable biochemical and pharmacological tool. Interestingly, PT modification was recently found to occur naturally in bacteria in a sequence-selective and RP configuration-specific manner. This oxygen-sulphur swap is catalysed by the gene products of dndABCDE, which constitute a defence barrier with DndFGH in some bacterial strains that can distinguish and attack non-PT-modified foreign DNA, resembling DNA methylation-based restriction-modification (R-M) systems. Despite their similar defensive mechanisms, PT- and methylation-based R-M systems have evolved to target different consensus contexts in the host cell because when they share the same recognition sequences, the protective function of each can be impeded. The redox and nucleophilic properties of PT sulphur render PT modification a versatile player in the maintenance of cellular redox homeostasis, epigenetic regulation and environmental fitness. The widespread presence of dnd systems is considered a consequence of extensive horizontal gene transfer, whereas the lability of PT during oxidative stress and the susceptibility of PT to PT-dependent endonucleases provide possible explanations for the ubiquitous but sporadic distribution of PT modification in the bacterial world.


DNA modification; DNA phosphorothioate modification; defence system; environmental fitness; epigenetics; restriction modification

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