Topoisomerases are the enzymes responsible for maintaining the supercoiled state of DNA in the cell and also for many other DNA-topology-associated reactions. Type IA enzymes alter DNA topology by breaking one DNA strand and passing another strand or strands through the break. Although all type IA topoisomerases are related at the sequence, structure and mechanism levels, different type IA enzymes do not participate in the same cellular processes. We have studied the mechanism of DNA relaxation by Escherichia coli topoisomerases I and III using single-molecule techniques to understand their dissimilarities. Our experiments show important differences at the single-molecule level, while also recovering the results from bulk experiments. Overall, topoisomerase III relaxes DNA using fast processive runs followed by long pauses, whereas topoisomerase I relaxes DNA through slow processive runs followed by short pauses. These two properties combined give rise to the overall relaxation rate, which is higher for topoisomerase I than for topoisomerase III, as expected from many biochemical observations. The results help us to understand better the role of these two topoisomerases in the cell and also serve to illustrate the power of single-molecule experiments to uncover new functional characteristics of biological molecules.

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