Structural and Functional Insights into ORCA’s Role in Chromatin Organization and DNA Replication Initiation


The Origin Recognition Complex (ORC) is a multi-subunit protein complex essential for the initiation of DNA replication in eukaryotic cells. It recognizes and binds to replication origins in the genome, marking the sites where replication will begin. The ORC-associated protein (ORCA) was identified as a protein that associates with ORC components and characterized by the presence of leucine-rich repeats and WD repeat domain, which are known for mediating protein-protein interactions. ORCA shows a particular affinity for heterochromatic regions, which are rich in repetitive DNA sequences and have a compact chromatin structure. It facilitates the recruitment of the ORC to heterochromatin, aiding in the initiation of replication in these regions. Heterochromatin is typically replicated late in the S phase of the cell cycle and ORCA’s presence is crucial for ensuring the proper timing of heterochromatin replication. Moreover, ORCA is essential for maintaining the epigenetic state of heterochromatin, which is crucial for gene silencing and genomic integrity. By ensuring proper replication of heterochromatin, ORCA helps prevent replication stress, which can lead to DNA damage and genomic instability. Alterations in ORCA function or expression might be implicated in various diseases, including cancer, due to its role in maintaining genomic stability. Therefore, understanding ORCA’s function could lead to novel therapeutic strategies for diseases associated with genomic instability.

In a new paper published in EMBO Journal by Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Sumon Sahu, Dr. Babatunde Ekundayo, Dr. Ashish Kumar, and led by Assistant Professor Franziska Bleichert from the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University, the authors conducted an in-depth study to understand the role of ORCA in DNA replication initiation within eukaryotic cells, particularly focusing on heterochromatin. The team employed advanced techniques including X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy to determine the structures of ORCA in complex with the ORC’s Orc2 subunit and nucleosomes. This approach enabled them for the first time to visualize the molecular interactions at high resolution, providing insights into how ORCA binds to and organizes chromatin. They also conducted various biochemical assays, such as electrophoretic mobility shift assays and peptide array binding assays, to understand ORCA’s interaction with nucleosomes and histone marks. These experiments helped in determining the specificity and affinity of ORCA for different histone modifications. The authors found ORCA to specifically recognize nucleosomes with repressive histone trimethylation marks through an aromatic cage in its WD40 domain. This binding is critical for ORCA’s function in chromatin organization. The study also revealed how ORCA binds to the Orc2 subunit of the ORC. This interaction is essential for recruiting ORC to specific chromatin domains, particularly those marked by H4K20 trimethylation, a modification abundant in heterochromatin.

One of the key findings is ORCA’s dual functionality in replication initiation. It not only recruits the ORC to chromatin but also plays a vital role in chromatin remodeling. The binding of ORCA to nucleosomes marked with H4K20 trimethylation modifies the chromatin structure, potentially making it more accessible for replication initiation. This process is crucial in tightly packed heterochromatin areas, where replication initiation is otherwise challenging.  Interestingly, the authors extended their research beyond human biology, offering a comparative analysis of ORCA across different species. This approach provided evolutionary insights into the protein’s function and emphasized the importance of histone modifications in the regulation of DNA replication across the metazoan kingdom.

In conclusion, the research work of Professor Franziska Bleichert and her colleagues marks a significant step forward in our understanding of DNA replication. By elucidating the role of ORCA in chromatin organization and ORC recruitment, this study enhances our comprehension of the fundamental processes governing cell division and genome stability. The new study could have far-reaching implications for targeted cancer therapies, as manipulating ORCA’s activity might alter DNA replication in cancer cells.


Sahu S, Ekundayo BE, Kumar A, Bleichert F. A dual role for the chromatin reader ORCA/LRWD1 in targeting the origin recognition complex to chromatin. EMBO J. 2023;42(18):e114654. doi: 10.15252/embj.2023114654.


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