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Nucleases cleave the phosphodiester bonds of nucleic acids and may be endo or exo, DNase or RNase, topoisomerases, recombinases, ribozymes, or RNA splicing enzymes. In this review, I survey nuclease activities with known structures and catalytic machinery and classify them by reaction mechanism and metal-ion dependence and by their biological function ranging from DNA replication, recombination, repair, RNA maturation, processing, interference, to defense, nutrient regeneration or cell death. Several general principles emerge from this analysis. There is little correlation between catalytic mechanism and biological function. A single catalytic mechanism can be adapted in a variety of reactions and biological pathways. Conversely, a single biological process can often be accomplished by multiple tertiary and quaternary folds and by more than one catalytic mechanism. Two-metal-ion-dependent nucleases comprise the largest number of different tertiary folds and mediate the most diverse set of biological functions. Metal-ion-dependent cleavage is exclusively associated with exonucleases producing mononucleotides and endonucleases that cleave double- or single-stranded substrates in helical and base-stacked conformations. All metal-ion-independent RNases generate 2′,3′-cyclic phosphate products, and all metal-ion-independent DNases form phospho-protein intermediates. I also find several previously unnoted relationships between different nucleases and shared catalytic configurations.
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