Bacterial autoimmunity due to a restriction-modification system

Maroš Pleška, Long Qian, Reiko Okura, Tobias Bergmiller, Yuichi Wakamoto, Edo Kussell, Cəlin C. Guet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Restriction-modification (RM) systems represent a minimal and ubiquitous biological system of self/non-self discrimination in prokaryotes [1], which protects hosts from exogenous DNA [2]. The mechanism is based on the balance between methyltransferase (M) and cognate restriction endonuclease (R). M tags endogenous DNA as self by methylating short specific DNA sequences called restriction sites, whereas R recognizes unmethylated restriction sites as non-self and introduces a double-stranded DNA break [3]. Restriction sites are significantly underrepresented in prokaryotic genomes [4-7], suggesting that the discrimination mechanism is imperfect and occasionally leads to autoimmunity due to self-DNA cleavage (self-restriction) [8]. Furthermore, RM systems can promote DNA recombination [9] and contribute to genetic variation in microbial populations, thus facilitating adaptive evolution [10]. However, cleavage of self-DNA by RM systems as elements shaping prokaryotic genomes has not been directly detected, and its cause, frequency, and outcome are unknown. We quantify self-restriction caused by two RM systems of Escherichia coli and find that, in agreement with levels of restriction site avoidance, EcoRI, but not EcoRV, cleaves self-DNA at a measurable rate. Self-restriction is a stochastic process, which temporarily induces the SOS response, and is followed by DNA repair, maintaining cell viability. We find that RM systems with higher restriction efficiency against bacteriophage infections exhibit a higher rate of self-restriction, and that this rate can be further increased by stochastic imbalance between R and M. Our results identify molecular noise in RM systems as a factor shaping prokaryotic genomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)404-409
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 8 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Neuroscience
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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