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Recombinases polymerize along single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) at the end of a broken DNA to form a helical nucleofilament with a periodicity of ∼18 bases. The filament catalyzes the search and checking for homologous sequences and promotes strand exchange with a donor duplex during homologous recombination (HR), the mechanism of which has remained mysterious since its discovery. Here, by inserting mismatched segments into donor duplexes and using single-molecule techniques to catch transient intermediates in HR, we found that, even though 3 base pairs (bp) is still the basic unit, both the homology checking and the strand exchange may proceed in multiple steps at a time, resulting in ∼9-bp large steps on average. More interestingly, the strand exchange is blocked remotely by the mismatched segment, terminating at positions ∼9 bp before the match-mismatch joint. The homology checking and the strand exchange are thus separated in space, with the strand exchange lagging behind. Our data suggest that the strand exchange progresses like a traveling wave in which the donor DNA is incorporated successively into the ssDNA-RecA filament to check homology in ∼9-bp steps in the frontier, followed by a hypothetical transitional segment and then the post-strand-exchanged duplex.


Xingyuan Huang, Ying Lu, Shuang Wang, Mingyu Sui, Jinghua Li, Jianbing Ma, Dongfei Ma, Qi Jia, Shuxin Hu, Chunhua Xu, Ming Li. Mismatch sensing by nucleofilament deciphers mechanism of RecA-mediated homologous recombination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2020 Aug 25;117(34):20549-20554

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PMID: 32788357

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