Molecular clocks are the product of natural selection in organisms from bacteria to human and their appearance early in evolution such as in the prokaryotic cyanobacterium Synechococcus elongatus suggests that these timers served a crucial role in genetic fitness. Thus, a clock allows cyanobacteria relying on photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation to temporally space the two processes and avoid exposure of nitrogenase carrying out fixation to high levels of oxygen produced during photosynthesis. Fascinating properties of molecular clocks are the long time constant, their precision and temperature compensation. Although these are hallmarks of all circadian oscillators, the actual cogs and gears that control clocks vary widely between organisms, indicating that circadian timers evolved convergently multiple times, owing to the selective pressure of an environment with a daily light/dark cycle. In S. elongatus, the three proteins KaiA, KaiB and KaiC in the presence of ATP constitute a so-called post-translational oscillator (PTO). The KaiABC PTO can be reconstituted in an Eppendorf tube and keeps time in a temperature-compensated manner. The ease by which the KaiABC clock can be studied in vitro has made it the best-investigated molecular clock system. Over the last decade, structures of all three Kai proteins and some of their complexes have emerged and mechanistic aspects have been analysed in considerable detail. This review focuses on the central gear of the S. elongatus clock and only enzyme among the three proteins: KaiC. Our determination of the three-dimensional structure of KaiC early in the quest for a better understanding of the inner workings of the cyanobacterial timer revealed its unusual architecture and conformational differences and unique features of the two RecA-like domains constituting KaiC. The structure also pinpointed phosphorylation sites and differential interactions with ATP molecules at subunit interfaces, and helped guide experiments to ferret out mechanistic aspects of the ATPase, auto-phosphorylation and auto-dephosphorylation reactions catalysed by the homo-hexamer. Comparisons between the structure of KaiC and those of nanomachines such as F1-ATPase and CaMKII also exposed shared architectural features (KaiC/ATPase), mechanistic principles (KaiC/CaMKII) and phenomena, such as subunit exchange between hexameric particles critical for function (clock synchronization, KaiABC; memory-storage, CaMKII).
- Received December 31, 2016.
- Accepted February 27, 2017.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
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