Adenine or cytosine methylation is part of the restriction modification system of many bacteria, in which specific DNA sequences are methylated periodically throughout the genome. A methylase is the enzyme that recognizes a specific sequence and methylates one of the bases in or near that sequence. Foreign DNAs (which are not methylated in this manner) that are introduced into the cell are degraded by sequence-specific restriction enzymes and cleaved. Bacterial genomic DNA is not recognized by these restriction enzymes. The methylation of native DNA acts as a sort of primitive immune system, allowing the bacteria to protect themselves from infection by bacteriophage.
E. coli DNA adenine methyltransferase (Dam) is an enzyme of ~32 kDa that does not belong to a restriction/modification system. The target recognition sequence for E. coli Dam is GATC, as the methylation occurs at the N6 position of the adenine in this sequence (G meATC). The three base pairs flanking each side of this site also influence DNA–Dam binding. Dam plays several key roles in bacterial processes, including mismatch repair, the timing of DNA replication, and gene expression. As a result of DNA replication, the status of GATC sites in the E. coli genome changes from fully methylated to hemimethylated. This is because adenine introduced into the new DNA strand is unmethylated. Re-methylation occurs within two to four seconds, during which time replication errors in the new strand are repaired. Methylation, or its absence, is the marker that allows the repair apparatus of the cell to differentiate between the template and nascent strands. It has been shown that altering Dam activity in bacteria results in increased spontaneous mutation rate. Bacterial viability is compromised in dam mutants that also lack certain other DNA repair enzymes, providing further evidence for the role of Dam in DNA repair.
One region of the DNA that keeps its hemimethylated status for longer is the origin of replication, which has an abundance of GATC sites. This is central to the bacterial mechanism for timing DNA replication. SeqA binds to the origin of replication, sequestering it and thus preventing methylation. Because hemimethylated origins of replication are inactive, this mechanism limits DNA replication to once per cell cycle.
Expression of certain genes, for example those coding for pilus expression in E. coli, is regulated by the methylation of GATC sites in the promoter region of the gene operon. The cells' environmental conditions just after DNA replication determine whether Dam is blocked from methylating a region proximal to or distal from the promoter region. Once the pattern of methylation has been created, the pilus gene transcription is locked in the on or off position until the DNA is again replicated. In E. coli, these pilus operons have important roles in virulence in urinary tract infections. It has been proposed that inhibitors of Dam may function as antibiotics.
On the other hand, DNA cytosine methylase targets CCAGG and CCTGG sites to methylate cytosine at the C5 position (C meC(A/T)GG). The other methylase enzyme, EcoKI, causes mehtylation of adenines in the sequences AAC(N6)GTGC and GCAC(N6)GTT.
Most strains used by molecular biologists are derivatives of K-12, and possess both Dam and Dcm, but there are commercially available strains that are dam-/dcm- (lack of activity of either methylase). In fact, it is possible to unmethylate the DNA extracted from dam+/dcm+ strains by transforming it into dam-/dcm- strains. This would help digest sequences that are not being recognized by methylation-sensitive restriction enzymes.
Read more about this topic: DNA Methylation
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“To the eyes of a god, mankind must appear as a species of bacteria which multiply and become progressively virulent whenever they find themselves in a congenial culture, and whose activity diminishes until they disappear completely as soon as proper measures are taken to sterilise them.”
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