Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

First Thesis Advisor

Celia A. Schiffer


cytidine deaminase, APOBEC3, specificity, structural analysis, molecular modeling, molecular dynamics simulation, DNA binding


APOBEC3s (A3s) are a family of human cytidine deaminases that play important roles in both innate immunity and cancer. A3s protect host cells against retroviruses and retrotransposons by deaminating cytosine to uracil on foreign pathogenic genomes. However, when mis-regulated, A3s can cause heterogeneities in host genome and thus promote cancer and the development of therapeutic resistance. The family consists of seven members with either one (A3A, A3C and A3H) or two zinc-binding domains (A3B, A3D, A3D and A3G). Despite overall similarity, A3 proteins have distinct deamination activity and substrate specificity. Over the past years, several crystal and NMR structures of apo A3s and DNA/RNA-bound A3s have been determined. These structures have suggested the importance of the loops around the active site for nucleotide specificity and binding. However, the structural mechanism underlying A3 activity and substrate specificity requires further examination.

Using a combination of computational molecular modeling and parallel molecular dynamics (pMD) simulations followed by experimental verifications, I investigated the roles of active site residues and surrounding loops in determining the substrate specificity and RNA versus DNA binding among A3s. Starting with A3B, I revealed the structural basis and gatekeeper residue for DNA binding. I also identified a unique auto-inhibited conformation in A3B that restricts access to the active site and may underlie lower catalytic activity compared to the highly similar A3A. Besides, I investigated the structural mechanism of substrate specificity and ssDNA binding conformation in A3s. I found an interdependence between substrate conformation and specificity. Specifically, the linear DNA conformation helps accommodate CC dinucleotide motif while the U-shaped conformation prefers TC. I also identified the molecular mechanisms of substrate sequence specificity at -1’ and -2’ positions. Characterization of substrate binding to A3A revealed that intra-DNA interactions may be responsible for the specificity in A3A. Finally, I investigated the structural mechanism for exclusion of RNA from A3G catalytic activity using similar methods.

Overall, the comprehensive analysis of A3s in this thesis shed light into the structural mechanism of substrate specificity and broaden the understanding of molecular interactions underlying the biological function of these enzymes. These results have implications for designing specific A3 inhibitors as well as base editing systems for gene therapy.



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