Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



Degree Granting Department

Biology (Cell Biology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology)

Major Professor

Kristina H. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Gary W. Daughdrill, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Stanley Stevens, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Patrick Bradshaw, Ph.D.


DNA Repair, Helicases, IDPs, Protein Disorder, Sgs1


The RecQ family of helicases has been termed the “Caretakers of the Genome,” and rightfully so. These proteins are highly conserved from bacteria to humans and have been implicated in functions from homologous recombinatorial repair to damage checkpoint response to telomere maintenance and more. Mutant genes of three of the human RecQ helicases lead to syndromes characterized by a high incidence of cancer, premature aging and early death. Despite their implications in several biological functions and importance to the integrity of the human genome and suppression of cancer, many aspects of the RecQ family structure and function remain unknown. To date, much is known about the catalytic function of the helicase domain and accompanying domains, but considerably less is known about the non-catalytic N-terminus in these proteins, which, in many cases, including those human orthologs involved in disease, can make up about half of the total protein length. While experiments have been able to identify protein partners that interact with the N-terminal region, few are able to narrow the binding sites to minimally functional parts and fewer still describe any detail regarding the structural features of these binding areas. In fact, some reviews have generally described the N-terminus as “featureless,” a concept we challenge in our studies.

Many of the N-termini of these RecQs have long been known to contain large stretches of acidic residues, a feature of intrinsically disordered regions. These regions/proteins are rich in charged and polar residues, lack compactness that makes crystallography possible, and have flexible and dynamic conformations that are prevalent in “high specificity, low affinity” interactions. Disordered proteins are well-known to be hot spots for protein/protein interactions and post-translational modifications, amongst other functions. Considering these facts, and recognizing the ties between these and what we know about the N-termini of the RecQs, we hypothesized that these proteins likely have long disordered termini. In Chapter 3, we confirm the presence of disorder at the Top3/Rmi1 binding site on Sgs1, the Saccharomyces cerevisiae RecQ helicase. We show that even in a disordered state, this binding region is not “featureless,” but in fact contains a transient alpha-helical molecular recognition element that is necessary to facilitate complex formation between Sgs1, Top3 and Rmi1. Loss of helical structure at this site leads to increased genomic instability and sensitivity to DNA damaging agents. Based on these results, we suggest that there are likely many more such elements in the N-terminus that that are important for other Sgs1 protein/protein interactions and provide an estimate for the number of interactions in this region.

In Chapter 4, we evaluate the prevalence of disorder in a set of Chromatin Processes proteins in an effort to establish a role for disorder with regards to maintaining chromatin integrity. In our bioinformatics study, we found that disorder is overrepresented in the Chromatin Processes proteins, and that a major driving force for disorder in these proteins is protein/protein interaction and post-translational modification. We also show a biological connection to disorder and increased protein/protein interaction by investigating these parameters in the context of the DNA damage checkpoint response and in complex formations. Mediators between highly structured kinases in the checkpoint were the most interactive proteins and over half of all predicted interaction sites occurred in disordered areas. Complexed proteins often contained one protein with a high number of disordered sites and a high number of predicted interactions, while the rest were considerably more ordered.

Chapter 5 explores a Sgs1 interaction partner, Rmi1 and uses bioinformatics to design structurally-based point mutations in an effort to further elucidate Rmi1 function in yeast, which remains largely unknown outside of its enhancement of Top3/Sgs1 catalytic function. Using AGADIR, which predicts alpha-helical structure and is particularly useful in our hands for guided-mutagenesis in disordered regions, we identified several point mutations that lead to Δrmi1 phenotypes or intermediate growth on hydroxyurea. We hypothesize that these mutants are important in maintaining Rmi1 stability.

Together, these studies suggest an important change in how the field approaches further studies into the RecQ helicases; traditional methods of primary sequence comparisons and crystal structures limit the study of disordered regions that are still functionally important. Future care should be given to consider the conservation of structure or structural elements in the RecQs over strict alignments when comparing functional regions between orthologs. Our studies also suggest that it is highly likely that structural motifs for important protein interactions in RecQs are being overlooked because they are not readily obvious using traditional methods. By understanding these motifs and the interactions they facilitate, we may be able to more easily identify polymorphisms in patients with genomically unstable conditions like cancer and, having better understood the biological process these structures facilitate, design drugs to counteract detrimental effects.

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