Argonaute (Ago) proteins constitute a key component of the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC). We report the crystal structure of Aquifex aeolicus Ago (Aa-Ago) together with binding and cleavage studies, which establish this eubacterial Ago as a bona fide guide DNA strand-mediated site-specific RNA endonuclease. We have generated a stereochemically robust model of the complex, where the guide DNA-mRNA duplex is positioned within a basic channel spanning the bilobal interface, such that the 5' phosphate of the guide strand can be anchored in a basic pocket, and the mRNA can be positioned for site-specific cleavage by RNase H-type divalent cation-coordinated catalytic Asp residues of the PIWI domain. Domain swap experiments involving chimeras of human Ago (hAgo1) and cleavage-competent hAgo2 reinforce the role of the PIWI domain in "slicer" activity. We propose a four-step Ago-mediated catalytic cleavage cycle model, which provides distinct perspectives into the mechanism of guide strand-mediated mRNA cleavage within the RISC.
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