The activation of DNA replication appears to involve at least four steps. These include origin recognition, origin unwinding, primer synthesis, and a switching step to a continuous elongation mode. Moreover, in higher eukaryotes a number of studies have shown that much of the DNA replication which occurs is restricted to specific sites within the nuclei. It has been proposed that these replication foci are composed of a large number of origin sites which are clustered together into an aggregate. The molecular basis for this aggregation is currently not well understood. Regulation of the activation of DNA replication is a complicated process. The G1-S kinase cdk2 is a positive regulator of replication. The p21 protein is a negative regulator of replication both by inhibiting cdk2 kinase and the replication protein PCNA. Moreover, it has been proposed that origin usage is restricted to a single firing per cell cycle by a "licensing factor." Using a cell-free replication system derived from Xenopus eggs we have investigated at what step in the replication process these regulators participate. We present evidence that the clustered organization of DNA into foci is not a transient arrangement, but rather, it persists following DNA replication. We also find that foci form on both sperm chromatin and bacteriophage lambda DNA incubated in extracts depleted of cdk2 kinase. Therefore, our data support the conclusion that organization of chromatin into foci is an early event in the replication pathway preceding activation of cdk2 kinase. With respect to the role of cdk2 during activation of DNA replication we find that in cdk2-depleted extracts primer synthesis does not occur and RP-A remains tightly associated with foci. This strongly suggests that cdk2 kinase is required for activating the origin unwinding step of the replication process. Consistent with this interpretation we find that addition of rate limiting quantities of the cdk2 inhibitor p21 protein to an extract delays primer synthesis. Interestingly, in the presence of p21 primer synthesis does occur after a delay and then replication arrests. This is consistent with the published demonstration that p21 can inhibit PCNA, a protein required for replication beyond the priming step. Therefore, our results provide additional support to the proposal that the post-priming switching step is a key regulatory step in replication. With respect to the role of licensing factor during DNA replication it has recently been shown that treatment of mitotic extracts with kinase inhibitor DMAP inactivates "licensing factor."(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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