Human replication protein A (hRPA) was previously seen to efficiently bind a 48 bp simian virus 40 (SV40) 'pseudo-origin' (PO) substrate that mimics a DNA structure found within the SV40 T antigen-origin (ori) complex. To understand the role of hRPA during the initiation of replication, we examined the PO sequence and structure requirements for hRPA interaction. Binding and unwinding were found to be most efficient when both strands of the central 8 nt single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) bubble region contained a polypyrimidine structure, with these activities proportionately reduced when the bubble region was replaced with a purine tract on one or both strands. Examination of the importance of the two duplex flanks indicates that the early gene side contains a DNA structural feature located one duplex turn from the bubble whose mutation significantly affects the affinity of hRPA for the substrate. When present in the context of ori, mutation of this sequence was seen to have significant effects on SV40 DNA replication in vitro and on the denaturation of ori, indicating that origin activity can be modulated by cis-acting elements which alter the hRPA binding affinity. Use of fork and overhang substrates containing 8 nt pyrimidine or purine arms demonstrates that hRPA binding to DNA involves a particular molecular polarity in which initial hRPA binding occurs on the 5' side of a ssDNA substrate, and then extends in the 3' direction to create a stably bound hRPA. These data have implications on the mechanism of the initiation of eukaryotic DNA replication as well as on the sites of nascent strand synthesis within the origin.
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