Members of the double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) specific RNase III family are known to use a conserved dsRNA-binding domain (dsRBD) to distinguish RNA A-form helices from DNA B-form ones, however, the basis of this selectivity and its effect on cleavage specificity remain unknown. Here, we directly examine the molecular requirements for dsRNA recognition and cleavage by the budding yeast RNase III (Rnt1p), and compare it to both bacterial RNase III and fission yeast RNase III (Pac1). We synthesized substrates with either chemically modified nucleotides near the cleavage sites, or with different DNA/RNA combinations, and investigated their binding and cleavage by Rnt1p. Substitution for the ribonucleotide vicinal to the scissile phosphodiester linkage with 2'-deoxy-2'-fluoro-beta-d-ribose (2' F-RNA), a deoxyribonucleotide, or a 2'-O-methylribonucleotide permitted cleavage by Rnt1p, while the introduction of a 2', 5'-phosphodiester linkage permitted binding, but not cleavage. This indicates that the position of the phosphodiester link with respect to the nuclease domain, and not the 2'-OH group, is critical for cleavage by Rnt1p. Surprisingly, Rnt1p bound to a DNA helix capped with an NGNN tetraribonucleotide loop indicating that the binding of at least one member of the RNase III family is not restricted to RNA. The results also suggest that the dsRBD may accommodate B-form DNA duplexes. Interestingly, Rnt1p, but not Pac1 nor bacterial RNase III, cleaved the DNA strand of a DNA/RNA hybrid, indicating that A-form RNA helix is not essential for cleavage by Rnt1p. In contrast, RNA/DNA hybrids bound to, but were not cleaved by Rnt1p, underscoring the critical role for the nucleotide located at 3' end of the tetraloop and suggesting an asymmetrical mode of substrate recognition. In cell extracts, the native enzyme effectively cleaved the DNA/RNA hybrid, indicating much broader Rnt1p substrate specificity than previously thought. The discovery of this novel RNA-dependent deoxyribonuclease activity has potential implications in devising new antiviral strategies that target actively transcribed DNA.
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