The human Werner syndrome protein (hWRN-p) possessing DNA helicase and exonuclease activities is essential for genome stability. Plants have no homologue of this bifunctional protein, but surprisingly the Arabidopsis genome contains a small open reading frame (ORF) (AtWRNexo) with homology to the exonuclease domain of hWRN-p. Expression of this ORF in Escherichia coli revealed an exonuclease activity for AtWRN-exo-p with similarities but also some significant differences to hWRN-p. The protein digests recessed strands of DNA duplexes in the 3' --> 5' direction but hardly single-stranded DNA or blunt-ended duplexes. In contrast to the Werner exonuclease, AtWRNexo-p is also able to digest 3'-protruding strands. DNA with recessed 3'-PO4 and 3'-OH termini is degraded to a similar extent. AtWRNexo-p hydrolyzes the 3'-recessed strand termini of duplexes containing mismatched bases. AtWRNexo-p needs the divalent cation Mg2+ for activity, which can be replaced by Mn2+. Apurinic sites, cholesterol adducts, and oxidative DNA damage (such as 8-oxoadenine and 8-oxoguanine) inhibit or block the enzyme. Other DNA modifications, including uracil, hypoxanthine and ethenoadenine, did not inhibit AtWRNexo-p. A mutation of a conserved residue within the exonuclease domain (E135A) completely abolished the exonucleolytic activity. Our results indicate that a type of WRN-like exonuclease activity seems to be a common feature of the DNA metabolism of animals and plants.
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