Activity of Ho, the yeast mating switch endonuclease, is restricted to a narrow time window of the cell cycle. Ho is unstable and despite being a nuclear protein is exported to the cytoplasm for proteasomal degradation. We report here the molecular basis for the highly efficient nuclear import of Ho and the relation between its short half-life and passage through the nucleus. The Ho nuclear import machinery is functionally redundant, being based on two bipartite nuclear localization signals, recognized by four importins of the ribosomal import system. Ho degradation is regulated by the DNA damage response and Ho retained in the cytoplasm is stabilized, implying that Ho acquires its crucial degradation signals in the nucleus. Ho arose by domestication of a fungal VMA1 intein. A comparison of the primary sequences of Ho and fungal VMA1 inteins shows that the Ho nuclear localization signals are highly conserved in all Ho proteins, but are absent from VMA1 inteins. Thus adoption of a highly efficient import strategy occurred very early in the evolution of Ho. This may have been a crucial factor in establishment of homothallism in yeast, and a key event in the rise of the Saccharomyces sensu stricto.
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