Mobile group II introns encode proteins with both reverse transcriptase activity, which functions in intron mobility, and maturase activity, which promotes RNA splicing by stabilizing the catalytically active structure of the intron RNA. Previous studies with the Lactococcus lactis Ll.LtrB intron suggested a model in which the intron-encoded protein binds first to a high-affinity binding site in intron subdomain DIVa, an idiosyncratic structure at the beginning of its own coding region, and then makes additional contacts with conserved catalytic core regions to stabilize the active RNA structure. Here, we developed an Escherichia coli genetic assay that links the splicing of the Ll.LtrB intron to the expression of green fluorescent protein and used it to study the in vivo splicing of wild-type and mutant introns and to delineate regions of the maturase required for splicing. Our results show that the maturase functions most efficiently when expressed in cis from the same transcript as the intron RNA. In agreement with previous in vitro assays, we find that the high-affinity binding site in DIVa is required for efficient splicing of the Ll.LtrB intron in vivo, but in the absence of DIVa, 6-10% residual splicing occurs by the direct binding of the maturase to the catalytic core. Critical regions of the maturase were identified by statistically analyzing ratios of missense to silent mutations in functional LtrA variants isolated from a library generated by mutagenic PCR ("unigenic evolution"). This analysis shows that both the reverse transcriptase domain and domain X, which likely corresponds to the reverse transcriptase thumb, are required for RNA splicing, while the C-terminal DNA-binding and DNA endonuclease domains are not required. Within the reverse transcriptase domain, the most critical regions for maturase activity include parts of the fingers and palm that function in template and primer binding in HIV-1 reverse transcriptase, but the integrity of the reverse transcriptase active site is not required. Biochemical analysis of LtrA mutants indicates that the N terminus of the reverse transcriptase domain is required for high-affinity binding of the intron RNA, possibly via direct interaction with DIVa, while parts of domain X interact with conserved regions of the catalytic core. Our results support the hypothesis that the intron-encoded protein adapted to function in splicing by using, at least in part, interactions used initially to recognize the intron RNA as a template for reverse transcription.
- DI-DVI, intron RNA domains I-VI
- E1, E2, exon 1, exon 2
- EBS, exon-binding site
- FACS, fluorescence-activated cell sorter
- GFP, green fluorescent protein
- HIV-1, human immunodeficiency virus type I
- RNA-protein interaction