DUF2285 is a novel helix-turn-helix domain variant that orchestrates both activation and antiactivation of conjugative element transfer in proteobacteria.
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Horizontal gene transfer is tightly regulated in bacteria. Often only a fraction of cells become donors even when regulation of horizontal transfer is coordinated at the cell population level by quorum sensing. Here, we reveal the widespread 'domain of unknown function' DUF2285 represents an 'extended-turn' variant of the helix-turn-helix domain that participates in both transcriptional activation and antiactivation to initiate or inhibit horizontal gene transfer. Transfer of the integrative and conjugative element ICEMlSymR7A is controlled by the DUF2285-containing transcriptional activator FseA. One side of the DUF2285 domain of FseA has a positively charged surface which is required for DNA binding, while the opposite side makes critical interdomain contacts with the N-terminal FseA DUF6499 domain. The QseM protein is an antiactivator of FseA and is composed of a DUF2285 domain with a negative surface charge. While QseM lacks the DUF6499 domain, it can bind the FseA DUF6499 domain and prevent transcriptional activation by FseA. DUF2285-domain proteins are encoded on mobile elements throughout the proteobacteria, suggesting regulation of gene transfer by DUF2285 domains is a widespread phenomenon. These findings provide a striking example of how antagonistic domain paralogues have evolved to provide robust molecular control over the initiation of horizontal gene transfer.
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