The APOBEC3 family of DNA cytosine deaminases functions to block the spread of endogenous retroelements and retroviruses including HIV-1. Potency varies among family members depending on the type of parasitic substrate. APOBEC3A (A3A) is unique among the human enzymes in that it is expressed predominantly in myeloid lineage cell types, it is strongly induced by innate immune agonists such as type 1 interferon, and it has the capacity to accommodate both normal and 5-methyl cytosine nucleobases. Here we apply atomic force microscopy (AFM) to characterize the interaction between A3A and single- and double-stranded DNA using a hybrid DNA approach in which a single-stranded region is flanked by defined length duplexes. AFM image analyses reveal A3A binding to single-stranded DNA, and that this interaction becomes most evident (∼80% complex yield) at high protein-to-DNA ratios (at least 100:1). A3A is predominantly monomeric when bound to single-stranded DNA, and it is also monomeric in solution at concentrations as high as 50 nM. These properties agree well with recent, biochemical, biophysical, and structural studies. However, these characteristics contrast with those of the related enzyme APOBEC3G, which in similar assays can exist as a monomer but tends to form oligomers in a concentration-dependent manner. These AFM data indicate that A3A has intrinsic biophysical differences that distinguish it from APOBEC3G. The potential relationships between these properties and biological functions in innate immunity are discussed.
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