The ε-subunit contains the catalytic site for the 3′→5′ proofreading exonuclease that functions in the DNA pol III (DNA polymerase III) core to edit nucleotides misinserted by the α-subunit DNA pol. A novel mutagenesis strategy was used to identify 23 dnaQ alleles that exhibit a mutator phenotype in vivo. Fourteen of the ε mutants were purified, and these proteins exhibited 3′→5′ exonuclease activities that ranged from 32% to 155% of the activity exhibited by the wild-type ε protein, in contrast with the 2% activity exhibited by purified MutD5 protein. DNA pol III core enzymes constituted with 11 of the 14 ε mutants exhibited an increased error rate during in vitro DNA synthesis using a forward mutation assay. Interactions of the purified ε mutants with the α- and θ-subunits were examined by gel filtration chromatography and exonuclease stimulation assays, and by measuring polymerase/exonuclease ratios to identify the catalytically active ε511 (I170T/V215A) mutant with dysfunctional proofreading in the DNA pol III core. The ε511 mutant associated tightly with the α-subunit, but the exonuclease activity of ε511 was not stimulated in the α–ε511 complex. Addition of the θ-subunit to generate the α–ε511–θ DNA pol III core partially restored stimulation of the ε511 exonuclease, indicating a role for the θ-subunit in co-ordinating the α–ε polymerase–exonuclease interaction. The α–ε511–θ DNA pol III core exhibited a 3.5-fold higher polymerase/exonuclease ratio relative to the wild-type DNA pol III core, further indicating dysfunctional proofreading in the α–ε511–θ complex. Thus the ε511 mutant has wild-type 3′→5′ exonuclease activity and associates physically with the α- and θ-subunits to generate a proofreading-defective DNA pol III enzyme.

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