A hammerhead self-cleaving domain composed of two oligoribonucleotides was used to study the role of divalent metal ions in the cleavage reaction. Cleavage rates were measured as a function of MgCl2, MnCl2, and CaCl2 concentration in the absence or presence of spermine. In the presence of spermine, the rate vs metal ion concentration curves are broader, and lower concentrations of divalent ions are necessary for catalytic activity. This suggests that spermine can promote proper folding of the hammerhead and one or more divalent ions are required for the reaction. Six additional divalent ions were tested for their ability to support hammerhead cleavage. In the absence of spermine, rapid cleavage was observed with Co2+ while very slow cleavage occurred with Sr2+ and Ba2+. No detectable specific cleavage was observed with Cd2+, Zn2+, or Pb2+. However, in the presence of 0.5 mM spermine, rapid cleavage was observed with Zn2+ and Cd2+, and the rate with Sr2+ was increased, indicating that while these three ions could not promote proper folding of the hammerhead they were able to stimulate cleavage. These results suggest certain divalent ions either participate directly in the cleavage mechanism or are specifically involved in stabilizing the tertiary structure of the hammerhead. Additionally, an altered divalent metal ion specificity was observed when a unique phosphorothioate linkage was inserted at the cleavage site. The substitution of a sulfur for a nonbridging oxygen atom substantially reduced the affinity of an important Mg2+ ion necessary for efficient cleavage. In contrast, the reaction proceeds normally with Mn2+, presumably due to its ability to coordinate with both oxygen and sulfur. This suggests that a divalent ion coordinates directly to the phosphate at the cleavage site.
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