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Chapter: Genetics and Molecular Biology: Biological Assembly, Ribosomes and Lambda Phage

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Formation of the lambda Tail

The tail of lambda is formed independently of the head and is then attached to the head.

Formation of the Tail

The tail of lambda is formed independently of the head and is then attached to the head. The most striking property of tail maturation is a mechanism that permits the tail to grow to a fixed length. First, proteins pG, pH, pI, pJ, pK, pL, and pM interact to form an initiator of polym-erization of the major tail protein, pV. The pV protein polymerizes on this initiator to form the tail tube. Finally, the terminator of polymeri-zation, pU, is added. After this, pZ protein functions, and the tail is attached to the head. The tail fibers formed from the pTfa and pStf are added somewhere in this sequence. Unbeknownst until recently, the lambda phage chosen for laboratory work in the 70s and 80s lacked these fibers and adventitiously adsorbed, albeit slowly, via the pJ fiber to the maltose porin in the outer cell wall. As a result of this slow adsorption, the tail fiber-deficient lambda form large plaques. Perhaps for the good of science, the resulting large-plaque morphology made it possible to distinguish clear and turbid plaques, and hence, permitted the study of lysogeny and its regulation.

If mutations in the tail genes are present, abnormal tails may be formed. For example, if the terminator of polymerization, pU, is absent, then normal tails are formed, but the pZ protein cannot function and the phage is largely inviable. Upon prolonged incubation of U- extracts, in vivo or in an in vitro reconstitution system, the tails will extendbeyond their normal length to form what is called a polytail. This structure is sufficiently normal that the pZ protein can function on it, and the polytail is attached to the head to yield a phage particle, but one of very low infectivity. Of course, if the pV protein is absent, no tail


polymerization occurs. Similarly, mutations in any of the genes G through M block initiator formation and therefore no tail is formed. The pH protein of the tail undergoes proteolytic cleavage during maturation to yield a protein called H*. Apparently the pH protein acts much like a tape measure in determining the length of the tail. Internal deletions in H yield phage with shorter tails.


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