The Mu story: how a maverick phage moved the field forward
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This article traces the pioneering contributions of phage Mu to our current knowledge of how movable elements move/transpose. Mu provided the first molecular evidence of insertion elements in E. coli, postulated by McClintock to control gene activity in maize in the pre-DNA era. An early Mu-based model successfully explained all the DNA rearrangements associated with transposition, providing a blueprint for navigating the deluge of accumulating reports on transposable element activity. Amplification of the Mu genome via transposition meant that its transposition frequencies were orders of magnitude greater than any rival, so it was only natural that the first in vitro system for transposition was established for Mu. These experiments unraveled the chemistry of the phosphoryl transfer reaction of transposition, and shed light on the nucleoprotein complexes within which they occur. They hastened a similar analysis of other transposons and ushered in the structural era where many transpososomes were crystallized. While it was a lucky break that the mechanism of HIV DNA integration turned out to be similar to that of Mu, it is no accident that current drugs for HIV integrase inhibitors owe their discovery to trailblazing experiments done with Mu. Shining the light on how movable elements restructure genomes, Mu has also given of itself generously to understanding the genome.
Rasika M Harshey is with the Section of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and Institute of Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, 78712, USA