Since its initial description more than two decades ago, the ribosome bypass (or “hop”) sequence of phage T4 stands out as a uniquely extreme example of programmed translational frameshifting. The gene for a DNA topoisomerase subunit of T4 has been split by a 1-kb insertion into two genes that retain topoisomerase function. A second 50-nt insertion, beginning with an in-phase stop codon, is inserted near the start of the newly created downstream gene 60. Instead of terminating at this stop codon, approximately half of the ribosomes skip 50 nucleotides and continue translation in a new reading frame. However, no functions, regulatory or otherwise, have been imputed for the truncated peptide that results from termination at codon 46 or for the bypass sequence itself. Moreover, how this unusual mRNA organization arose and why it is maintained have never been explained. We show here that a homing endonuclease (MobA) is encoded in the insertion that created gene 60, and the mobA gene together with the bypass sequence constitute a mobile DNA cassette. The bypass sequence provides protection against self-cleavage by the nuclease, whereas the nuclease promotes horizontal spread of the entire cassette to related bacteriophages. Group I introns frequently provide protection against self-cleavage by associated homing endonucleases. We present a scenario by which the bypass sequence, which is otherwise a unique genetic element, might have been derived from a degenerate group I intron
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