New & Noteworthy

Telomerator is the Chromosomal Terminator

December 10, 2014

A simple tool for adding telomeres to linear DNA:

First there was the Terminator. Now, in a new study published in PNAS by Mitchell and Boeke, we have the telomerator.

When he cuts you up, you won’t survive. But when the telomerator cuts your circular DNA, it will survive fine as a stable, linearized piece of DNA. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of being a homicidal robot from the future bent on killing Sarah Connor, the telomerator is a tool that lets scientists easily turn circular DNA into stable chromosomes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. While less splashy, this bit of synthetic biology is definitely cool in its own way (and much less dangerous!).

The system that Mitchell and Boeke created is very clever. They first inserted the intron from the ACT1 gene into the middle of the URA3 gene. The URA3 gene was still functional, as ura3 mutants could use it to grow on medium lacking uracil.  

They next inserted a sequence into the middle of the intron that consisted of an 18 base pair I-SceI cleavage site flanked on each side by around 40 base pairs of yeast telomere repeats (called Telomere Seed Sequences or TeSSs). This construct still allowed ura3 mutants to grow in the absence of added uracil.

The final step was to introduce the homing endonuclease I-SceI to the cell so that it cut the circular DNA precisely between the two TeSSs. The idea is that when you add the homing endonuclease, the newly linearized piece of DNA ends up with the telomere seeds on each end. Telomerase adds more repeats to the seeds until the DNA has proper telomeres. Voilà, a chromosome is born.

The URA3 gene part of the plasmid is important for selecting cells with the linearized DNA. Basically a circularized DNA will grow on medium lacking uracil but fail to grow on medium with 5-FOA, while the linearized DNA will do the opposite. In other words, the process of linearization should destroy the URA3 gene. And that’s just what they found.

Previous work had shown that to be stable in yeast, a chromosome needs to be at least 90 kilobases (kb) or so long. This is why they tested their new telomerator in synIXR, a synthetic yeast chromosome that is about 100 kb in length. This chromosome has 52 genes from the right arm of chromosome 9, two genes from the left arm, around 10 kb of nonessential BAC DNA, the native centromere CEN9, and a LEU2 marker. 

Mitchell and Boeke inserted the telomerator sequence into two different locations in the BAC part of the circularized synIXR and found that adding I-SceI appeared to linearize the DNA. In both cases they found that around 100 out of 200 cells were resistant to 5-FOA and unable to grow in the absence of uracil but could still grow in the absence of leucine. This is just what we would predict if we cut the DNA in the middle of the URA3 gene and created a stable piece of linear DNA.

They next wanted to use this tool to study the effects of telomeric DNA on nearby genes. We would predict that because of telomeric silencing, genes near a telomere will be downregulated. Any genes that affect growth when turned down should quickly become evident.

To accomplish this they inserted the telomerator three base pairs downstream of each of the 54 genes on synIXR, generating 54 new plasmids. After activating the telomerator by expressing the I-SceI nuclease, they used pulsed field gel electrophoresis to confirm that 51 of the 54 synthetic chromosomes had indeed been linearized.

As expected, they found that putting a telomere near a gene sometimes has profound effects. For example, when they linearized DNA where the telomerator was 3’ of either YIR014W, MRS1, or YIR020C-B, they got no growth. They also found many more effects on the growth rate at both 30° C and 37° C at many different, “telomerized” genes. The implication is that when these genes are near telomeric DNA, they no longer function at a high enough level for the yeast to grow well or in some cases to even survive.

To confirm that the effects they saw were due to telomeric silencing, Mitchell and Boeke tested each linearized DNA in a sir2 mutant, a key player in this form of silencing. Mutating sir2 reversed the effects of placing a telomere near the gene, further supporting the idea that the newly created chromosome ends are like normal telomeres because they undergo the same Sir2-mediated silencing.

Finally, the researchers tested the stability of the newly created chromosomes by selecting for Ura+ revertants from six individual cultures with different linearized molecules. They failed to select any revertants in which the DNA had recircularized, showing that the linear chromosomes are stable.

So in contrast to the Terminator, who sliced and diced his victims randomly, the telomerator will allow synthetic biologists to create linear chromosomes with precisely positioned telomeres. This study proved the concept, and this tool will be incredibly useful in the future, both in yeast and potentially in other eukaryotes. Both the Terminator and the telomerator can say, “I’ll be back”!

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics

Categories: Research Spotlight

Tags: synthetic biology , Saccharomyces cerevisiae , telomere