Pol α has limited processivity and lacks 3′ exonuclease activity for proofreading errors. Thus it is not well suited to efficiently and accurately copy long templates (unlike Pol Delta and Epsilon). Instead it plays a more limited role in replication. Pol α is responsible for the initiation of DNA replication at origins of replication (on both the leading and lagging strands) and during synthesis of Okazaki fragments on the lagging strand. The Pol α complex (pol α-DNA primase complex) consists of four subunits: the catalytic subunit POLA1, the regulatory subunit POLA2, and the small and the large primase subunits PRIM1 and PRIM2 respectively. Once primase has created the RNA primer, Pol α starts replication elongating the primer with ~20 nucleotides.
In addition to its role during DNA replication, POLA1 plays a role in type I interferon activation. The POLA1 gene was found to be the site of a mutation resulting in X-linked reticulate pigmentary disorder. This leads to altered mRNA splicing and decreased expression of POLA1 protein to a level that does not impair DNA replication. The reduction in POLA1 expression is accompanied by marked reduction in cytosolic RNA:DNA hybrid molecules and a concomitant hyperactivation of the IRF pathway, with consequent overproduction of type I interferons.
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