DNA replication has been well studied in bacteria primarily because of the small size of the genome and the mutants that are available. E. coli has 4.6 million base pairs (Mbp) in a single circular chromosome and all of it is replicated in approximately 42 minutes, starting from a single origin of replication and proceeding around the circle bidirectionally (i.e., in both directions). This means that approximately 1000 nucleotides are added per second. The process is quite rapid and occurs with few errors.
DNA replication uses a large number of proteins and enzymes. One of the key players is the enzyme DNA polymerase, also known as DNA pol. In bacteria, three main types of DNA polymerases are known: DNA pol I, DNA pol II, and DNA pol III. It is now known that DNA pol III is the enzyme required for DNA synthesis; DNA pol I and DNA pol II are primarily required for repair. DNA pol III adds deoxyribonucleotides each complementary to a nucleotide on the template strand, one by one to the 3’-OH group of the growing DNA chain. The addition of these nucleotides requires energy. This energy is present in the bonds of three phosphate groups attached to each nucleotide (a triphosphate nucleotide), similar to how energy is stored in the phosphate bonds of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). When the bond between the phosphates is broken and diphosphate is released, the energy released allows for the formation of a covalent phosphodiester bond by dehydration synthesis between the incoming nucleotide
and the free 3’-OH group on the growing DNA strand.
The initiation of replication occurs at specific nucleotide sequence called the origin of replication, where various proteins bind to begin the replication process. E. coli has a single origin of replication (as do most prokaryotes), called oriC, on its one chromosome. The origin of replication is approximately 245 base pairs long and is rich in adeninethymine (AT) sequences.
Some of the proteins that bind to the origin of replication are important in making single-stranded regions of DNA accessible for replication. Chromosomal DNA is typically wrapped around histones (in eukaryotes and archaea) or histone-like proteins (in bacteria), and is supercoiled, or extensively wrapped and twisted on itself. This packaging
makes the information in the DNA molecule inaccessible. However, enzymes called topoisomerases change the shape and supercoiling of the chromosome. For bacterial DNA replication to begin, the supercoiled chromosome is relaxed by topoisomerase II, also called DNA gyrase. An enzyme called helicase then separates the DNA strands by breaking the hydrogen bonds between the nitrogenous base pairs. Recall that AT sequences have fewer hydrogen bonds and, hence, have weaker interactions than guanine-cytosine (GC) sequences. These enzymes require ATP hydrolysis. As the DNA opens up, Y-shaped structures called replication forks are formed. Two replication forks are formed at the origin of replication, allowing for bidirectional replication and formation of a structure that looks like a bubble when viewed with a transmission electron microscope; as a result, this structure is called a replication bubble. The DNA near each replication fork is coated with single-stranded binding proteins to prevent the singlestranded DNA from rewinding into a double helix.
Once single-stranded DNA is accessible at the origin of replication, DNA replication can begin. However, DNA pol III is able to add nucleotides only in the 5’ to 3’ direction (a new DNA strand can be only extended in this direction). This is because DNA polymerase requires a free 3’-OH group to which it can add nucleotides by forming a covalent phosphodiester bond between the 3’-OH end and the 5’ phosphate of the next nucleotide. This also means that it cannot add nucleotides if a free 3’-OH group is not available, which is the case for a single strand of DNA. The problem is solved with the help of an RNA sequence that provides the free 3’-OH end. Because this sequence allows the start of DNA synthesis, it is appropriately called the primer. The primer is five to 10 nucleotides long and complementary to the parental or template DNA. It is synthesized by RNA primase, which is an RNA polymerase. Unlike DNA polymerases, RNA polymerases do not need a free 3’-OH group to synthesize an RNA molecule. Now that the primer provides the free 3’-OH group, DNA polymerase III can now extend this RNA primer, adding DNA
nucleotides one by one that are complementary to the template strand.
During elongation in DNA replication, the addition of nucleotides occurs at its maximal rate of about 1000 nucleotides per second. DNA polymerase III can only extend in the 5’ to 3’ direction, which poses a problem at the replication fork. The DNA double helix is antiparallel; that is, one strand is oriented in the 5’ to 3’ direction and the other is oriented in the 3’ to 5’ direction. During replication, one strand, which is complementary to the 3’ to 5’ parental DNA strand, is synthesized continuously toward the replication fork because polymerase can add nucleotides in this direction. This continuously synthesized strand is known as the leading strand. The other strand, complementary to the 5’ to 3’ parental DNA, grows away from the replication fork, so the polymerase must move back toward the replication fork to begin adding bases to a new primer, again in the direction away from the replication fork. It does so until it bumps into the previously synthesized strand and then it moves back again. These steps produce small DNA sequence fragments known as Okazaki fragments, each separated by RNA primer. Okazaki fragments are named after the Japanese research team and married couple Reiji and Tsuneko Okazaki, who first discovered them in 1966. The strand with the Okazaki
fragments is known as the lagging strand, and its synthesis is said to be discontinuous.
The leading strand can be extended from one primer alone, whereas the lagging strand needs a new primer for each of the short Okazaki fragments. The overall direction of the lagging strand will be 3’ to 5’, and that of the leading strand 5’ to 3’. A protein called the sliding clamp holds the DNA polymerase in place as it continues to add nucleotides. The sliding clamp is a ring-shaped protein that binds to the DNA and holds the polymerase in place. Beyond its role in initiation, topoisomerase also prevents the overwinding of the DNA double helix ahead of the replication fork as the DNA is opening up; it does so by causing temporary nicks in the DNA helix and then resealing it. As synthesis proceeds, the RNA primers are replaced by DNA. The primers are removed by the exonuclease activity of DNA polymerase I, and the gaps are filled in. The nicks that remain between the newly synthesized DNA (that replaced the RNA primer) and the previously synthesized DNA are sealed by the enzyme DNA ligase that catalyzes the formation of covalent phosphodiester linkage between the 3’-OH end of one DNA fragment and the 5’ phosphate end of the
other fragment, stabilizing the sugar-phosphate backbone of the DNA molecule.
Once the complete chromosome has been replicated, termination of DNA replication must occur. Although much is known about initiation of replication, less is known about the termination process. Following replication, the resulting complete circular genomes of prokaryotes are concatenated, meaning that the circular DNA chromosomes are interlocked and must be separated from each other. This is accomplished through the activity of bacterial topoisomerase IV, which introduces double-stranded breaks into DNA molecules, allowing them to separate from each other; the enzyme then reseals the circular chromosomes. The resolution of concatemers is an issue unique to prokaryotic DNA replication because of their circular chromosomes. Because both bacterial DNA gyrase and topoisomerase IV are distinct from their eukaryotic counterparts, these enzymes serve as targets for a class of antimicrobial drugs called quinolones.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology