Replication of the mammalian mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is dependent on the minimal replisome, consisting of the heterotrimeric mtDNA polymerase (POLG), the hexameric DNA helicase TWINKLE and the tetrameric single-stranded DNA-binding protein (mtSSB). TWINKLE has been shown to unwind DNA during the replication process and many disease-causing mutations have been mapped to its gene. Patients carrying Twinkle mutations develop multiple deletions of mtDNA, deficient respiratory chain function and neuromuscular symptoms.

Despite its importance in human disease, it has been unclear whether TWINKLE is the only replicative DNA helicase in mammalian mitochondria. Furthermore, a substantial portion of mtDNA replication events is prematurely terminated at the end of mitochondrial control region (D-loop) and it is unknown whether TWINKLE also has a role in this abortive replication. Here, we present a conditional mouse knockout for Twinkle and demonstrate that TWINKLE is essential for mouse embryonic development and thus is the only replicative DNA helicase in mammalian mitochondria.

Conditional knockout of Twinkle results in severe and rapid mtDNA depletion in heart and skeletal muscle. No replication intermediates or deleted mtDNA molecules are observed after Twinkle knockout, suggesting that TWINKLE once loaded is very processive. We also demonstrate that TWINKLE is essential for nascent H-strand synthesis in the D-loop, thus showing that there is no separate DNA helicase responsible for replication of this region. Our data thus suggest that the relative levels of abortive D-loop synthesis versus complete mtDNA replication are regulated and may provide a mechanism to control progression to complete mtDNA replication.

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TWINKLE is an essential mitochondrial helicase required for synthesis of nascent D-loop strands and complete mtDNA replication