Background: Several reports have appeared recently of experimental evidence for a double-metal-ion mechanism of catalysis in reactions catalysed by hammerhead ribozymes. In one case, hammerhead ribozyme-mediated cleavage was analysed as a function of the concentration of La3+ ions in the presence of a fixed concentration of Mg2+ ions so that the role of metal ions that are directly involved in the cleavage reaction could be monitored. The resultant bell-shaped curve for activation of cleavage was used to support the proposed double-metal-ion mechanism of catalysis. However, other studies have demonstrated that the binding of a metal ion (the most conserved P9 metal ion) to the pro-Rp oxygen (P9 oxygen) of the phosphate moiety of nucleotide A9 and to the N7 of nucleotide G10.1 is critical for efficient catalysis, despite the large distance (≃20 Å) between the P9 metal ion and the labile phosphodiester group in the ground state. In fact, it was demonstrated that an added Cd2+ ion binds first to the pro-Rp phosphoryl P9 oxygen but not with the pro-Rp phosphoryl oxygen at the cleavage site. Results: In earlier discussions, it was difficult to completely exclude the possibility that La3+ ions might have replaced the P9 metal ion and, as a result, created conditions represented by the bell-shaped curve. In order to clarify this situation, we examined a chemically synthesized hammerhead ribozyme (7-deaza-R34) that included a minimal modification, namely, an N7-deazaguanine residue in place of G10.1. We compared the kinetic properties of this ribozyme with those of the parental ribozyme (R34). Kinetic analysis revealed that, unlike the cases of added Cd2+ ions, the added La3+ ions did not replace the pre-existing P9 metal ion, and that the replacement of N7 by C7 at G10.1 reduced the catalytic activity to a limited extent. This result indicates that the binding of a Mg2+ ion to N7 at G10.1 is catalytically important but not indispensable. Most importantly, 7-deaza-R34 also yielded a bell-shaped curve upon addition of La3+ ions to the reaction mixture. Conclusions: Since the data based on our experiments with 7-deaza-R34 are completely free from potential artefacts, due to the binding of a La3+ ion to N7 at G10.1, our results, that 7-deaza-R34 yielded a bell-shaped curve following the addition of La3+ ions to the Mg2+-background reaction mixture, strongly supports the proposal that a double-metal-ion mechanism is operative in the cleavage reaction which is catalysed by hammerhead ribozymes.
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