Bacteriophage terminases are oligomeric multifunctional proteins that bind to vegetative DNA, cut it and, together with portal proteins, translocate the DNA into preformed heads. Most terminases are encoded by two partially overlapping genes. In phage T4 they are genes 16 and 17. We have shown before that the larger of these, gene 17, can yield, in addition to a full-length 70 kDa product, several shorter peptides. At least two of these, gene product (gp) 17' and gp17", are initiated in the same reading frame as the 70 kDa gp17 from internal ribosome binding sites. Most of the shorter gp17 s contain predicted ATPase motifs, but only the largest (70 kDa) peptide has a predicted single-stranded DNA binding domain. Here we describe the DNA binding and cutting properties of the purified 70 kDa protein, expressed from two different clones containing gene 17 but no other T4 gene. Epitope-specific antibodies, which recognize several different gene 17 products in extracts of induced clones or of T4-infected cells, precipitate the purified 70 kDa gp17. When Mg2+ is chelated by EDTA this 70 kDa protein binds to single-stranded DNA, preferentially to junctions of single- and double-stranded DNA segments. It does not bind to blunt-ended double-stranded DNA. When Mg2+ is present the purified 70 kDa gp17 digests single-stranded segments preferentially up to junctions with double-stranded DNA. A 70 kDa gp17 from a P379L temperature sensitive (ts) mutant, which has lost the nuclease and ATPase activities, retains the single-stranded DNA binding activity. Taken together with earlier findings these results support a model for packaging of T4 DNA from single-stranded regions in recombinational or replicative intermediates, which occur at nearly random positions of the genome. This mechanism may be an alternative to site-specific initiation of packaging proposed by other investigators.
Copyright 1998 Academic Press Limited.