The RAG (recombination-activating gene) complex is responsible for the generation of antigen receptor diversity by acting as a sequence-specific nuclease. Recent studies have shown that it also acts as a structure-specific nuclease. However, little is known about the factors regulating this activity at the genomic level. We show in the present study that the proximity of a V(D)J nonamer to heteroduplex DNA significantly increases RAG cleavage and binding efficiencies at physiological concentrations of MgCl2. The position of the nonamer with respect to heteroduplex DNA was important, but not orientation. A spacer length of 18 bp between the nonamer and mismatch was optimal for RAG-mediated DNA cleavage. Mutations to the sequence of the nonamer and deletion of the nonamer-binding domain of RAG1 reinforced the role of the nonamer in the enhancement in RAG cleavage. Interestingly, partial mutation of the nonamer did not significantly reduce RAG cleavage on heteroduplex DNA, suggesting that even cryptic nonamers were sufficient to enhance RAG cleavage. More importantly, we show that the fragile region involved in chromosomal translocations associated with BCL2 (B-cell lymphoma 2) can be cleaved by RAGs following a nonamer-dependent mechanism. Hence our results from the present study suggest that a non-B DNA can replace the heptamer of RSS (recombination signal sequence) when present adjacent to nonamers, explaining the generation of certain chromosomal translocations in lymphoid malignancies.

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