The yeast mating-type switching endonuclease HO is a domesticated member of an unorthodox homing genetic element family

A. Y. Coughlan, L. Lombardi, S. Braun-Galleani, A. A. R. Martos, V. Galeote, F. Bigey, S. Dequin, K. P. Byrne and K. H. Wolfe,  eLife,  9:e55336. 2020.

The mating-type switching endonuclease HO plays a central role in the natural life cycle of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but its evolutionary origin is unknown. HO is a recent addition to yeast genomes, present in only a few genera close to Saccharomyces. Here we show that HO is structurally and phylogenetically related to a family of unorthodox homing genetic elements found in Torulaspora and Lachancea yeasts. These WHO elements home into the aldolase gene FBA1, replacing its 3′ end each time they integrate. They resemble inteins but they operate by a different mechanism that does not require protein splicing. We show that a WHO protein cleaves Torulaspora delbrueckii FBA1 efficiently and in an allele-specific manner, leading to DNA repair by gene conversion or NHEJ. The DNA rearrangement steps during WHO element homing are very similar to those during mating-type switching, and indicate that HO is a domesticated WHO-like element.


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