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Volume 2 (2006), Issue 1, Pages 59-72
Research Article

A putative viral defence mechanism in archaeal cells

Institute of Molecular Biology, University of Copenhagen, Sølvgade 83H, DK1307 Copenhagen K, Denmark

Received 27 April 2006; Accepted 26 June 2006

Copyright © 2006 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Clusters of regularly spaced direct repeats, separated by unconserved spacer sequences, are ubiquitous in archaeal chromosomes and occur in some plasmids. Some clusters constitute around 1% of chromosomal DNA. Similarly structured clusters, generally smaller, also occur in some bacterial chromosomes. Although early studies implicated these clusters in segregation/partition functions, recent evidence suggests that the spacer sequences derive from extrachromosomal elements, and, primarily, viruses. This has led to the proposal that the clusters provide a defence against viral propagation in cells, and that both the mode of inhibition of viral propagation and the mechanism of adding spacer-repeat units to clusters, are dependent on RNAs transcribed from the clusters. Moreover, the putative inhibitory apparatus (piRNA-based) may be evolutionarily related to the interference RNA systems (siRNA and miRNA), which are common in eukarya. Here, we analyze all the current data on archaeal repeat clusters and provide some new insights into their diverse structures, transcriptional properties and mode of structural development. The results are consistent with larger cluster transcripts being processed at the centers of the repeat sequences and being further trimmed by exonucleases to yield a dominant, intracellular RNA species, which corresponds approximately to the size of a spacer. Furthermore, analysis of the extensive clusters of Sulfolobus solfataricus strains P1 and P2B provides support for the presence of a flanking sequence adjoining a cluster being a prerequisite for the incorporation of new spacer-repeat units, which occurs between the flanking sequence and the cluster. An archaeal database summarizing the data will be maintained at