In eukaryotic cells, DNA replication is highly conserved and tightly regulated. Multiple linear chromosomes must be duplicated with high fidelity before cell division, so there are many proteins that fulfill specialized roles in the replication process. Replication occurs in three phases: initiation, elongation, and termination, and ends with two complete sets of chromosomes in the nucleus.
Many Proteins Orchestrate Replication at the Origin
Eukaryotic replication follows many of the same principles as prokaryotic DNA replication, but because the genome is much larger and the chromosomes are linear rather than circular, the process requires more proteins and has a few key differences. First, unlike prokaryotes, replication in eukaryotes occurs simultaneously at multiple origins of replication along each chromosome. Initiator proteins recognize and bind to these origins and recruit helicase proteins to unwind the DNA double helix. At each point of origin, two replication forks form. Primase then adds short RNA primers to the single strands of DNA, which serve as a starting point for DNA polymerase to bind and begin copying the sequence. DNA can only be synthesized in the 5'to 3'direction, so replication of both strands from a single replication fork proceeds in two different directions. The leading strand is synthesized continuously, while the lagging strand is synthesized in short stretches of 100–200 base pairs in length, called Okazaki fragments. Once the bulk of replication is complete, RNase enzymes remove the RNA primers, DNA polymerase fills the gaps, and DNA ligase seals the gaps in the new strand.
Dividing the Work of Replication Among Polymerases
The workload of copying DNA in eukaryotes is divided among multiple different types of DNA polymerase enzymes. Major families of DNA polymerases across all organisms are categorized by the similarity of their protein structures and amino acid sequences. The first families to be discovered were termed A, B, C, and X, with families Y and D identified later. Family B polymerases in eukaryotes include Pol α, which also functions as a primase at the replication fork, and Pol δ and ε, the enzymes that do most of the work of DNA replication on the leading and lagging strands of the template, respectively. Other DNA polymerases are responsible for such tasks as repairing DNA damage, copying mitochondrial and plastid DNA, and filling in gaps in the DNA sequence on the lagging strand after the RNA primers are removed.
Telomeres Protect the Ends of the Chromosomes from Degradation
Because eukaryotic chromosomes are linear, they are susceptible to degradation at the ends. To protect important genetic information from damage, the ends of chromosomes contain many non-coding repeats of highly conserved G-rich DNA, the telomeres. A short single-stranded 3'overhang at each end of the chromosome interacts with specialized proteins, which stabilize the chromosome within the nucleus. Because of the manner in which the lagging strand is synthesized, a small amount of the telomeric DNA cannot be replicated with each cell division. As a result, the telomeres gradually get shorter over the course of many cell cycles, and thus can be measured as a marker of cellular aging. Certain populations of cells, such as germ cells and stem cells, express telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens the telomeres, allowing the cell to undergo more cell cycles before the telomeres shorten.
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