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First systematic report on the tug-of-war between DNA damage and repair

- Genomic analysis of mutations show the complex interplay between DNA damage and faulty repair systems -

A collaborative project between the Center for Genome Integrity, within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS, South Korea), and the Dundee School of Life Sciences, the EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), and the Wellcome Sanger Institute (UK) have screened almost 163,000 DNA mutations in 2,700 C. elegans roundworms to shed light on DNA damage. The results, published in Nature Communications, lead to the conclusion that mutation patterns seen in cancer are more complicated than we previously thought.

In the movie X-Men, Mystique is born as a mutant with the ability to shapeshift into anyone by converting atoms and molecules in her body. In reality, however, a faulty DNA damage repair mechanism may pile up mutations, resulting in critical health issues, such as cancers and genetic disabilities. (Credit:Pinterest)
▲ In the movie X-Men, Mystique is born as a mutant with the ability to shapeshift into anyone by converting atoms and molecules in her body. In reality, however, a faulty DNA damage repair mechanism may pile up mutations, resulting in critical health issues, such as cancers and genetic disabilities. (Credit:Pinterest)

Our genetic material is constantly exposed to possible sources of mutations, including UV light, tobacco smoke and carcinogenic chemicals. These genetic alterations are usually corrected by an army of DNA repair proteins that patrol the DNA and fix its mistakes. However, what happens when the policemen themselves are malfunctioning? They can overlook some DNA alterations, or even generate some mutations while trying to correct them. In this study, researchers looked at mutational signatures – patterns of mutations occurring in the genome – caused by the combined action of 11 known DNA damaging agents and inaccurate DNA repair mechanisms using C. elegans worms as a model system.

Watch the graceful move of C. elegans
▲ Watch the graceful move of C. elegansC. elegans grows to about 1 mm in length, and lives in the soil. C. elegans shares many of the essential biological characteristics that are central problems of human biology. It goes through a complex process of development after being conceived as a single cell. So much effort is putting into the study of C. elegans as it serves as the ideal compromise between complexity and tractability.

“Our paper is the first to use experimental approaches to systematically test, at a genome-wide scale, how DNA damaging agents cause mutations, and how this is prevented by DNA repair proteins,” says Anton Gartner, Associate Director of the IBS Center for Genomic Integrity and co-leading author of this study.

While mutagens were thought to generate unique mutational signatures, the results showed a more intricate picture. DNA repair pathways are highly redundant: up to four different repair pathways act together to prevent mutagenesis caused by the same cancer inducing agents. Using roundworms with 53 different DNA repair deficits, the researchers found out that a single mutagen may leave a variety of mutational signatures depending on the faulty repair system.

This study is particularly important because unmended mutations in specific parts of the DNA can lead to cancer. Since fundamental processes, such as DNA repair, are conserved throughout evolution, the team was able to use data derived from C. elegans to scan through thousands of human cancer genome sequences and find possible evidence for mutagenic events linked to faulty DNA repair systems.

Over the past years, mutational signatures of cancer have been deduced from computational analyses. Some of these signatures could be associated with suspected mutagenic causes, such as the exposure to UV light for melanomas, or exposure to aflatoxin for liver cancer. However, the cause of the majority of these mutational signatures observed in cancer is not known. In most cases, it is unclear if there is a direct one-to-one relationship between the mutational signatures and a single mutagen. This paper reports that mutational signatures are due to a combination of factors, ‘offending’ DNA damaging agents and cellular policemen that properly do their job most of the time, but in some cases allow culprits to escape.

Figure 1 Exposure to various mutagenic agents causes distinct mutational profiles
▲ Figure 1 Exposure to various mutagenic agents causes distinct mutational profiles


Figure 2 Example of base substitutions caused by the mutagen MMS (methyl-methan sulfonate) differ between WT (upper panel) and polk DNA repair defective strains (lower panel), T>A changes (indicted in gray) being increased >30 times.
▲ Figure 2 Example of base substitutions caused by the mutagen MMS (methyl-methan sulfonate) differ between WT (upper panel) and polk DNA repair defective strains (lower panel), T>A changes (indicted in gray) being increased >30 times.

Notes for editors

- References
Volkova N. V., Meier B., González-Huici V., Bertolini S., Gonzalez S., Vöhringer H., Abascal F., Martincorena I., Campbell P. J., Gartner A., Gerstung M., Nature Communications, (2020); 11(1):2169. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-15912-7

- Media Contact
For further information or to request media assistance, please contact: Anton Gartner, Associate Director of the IBS Center for Genomic Integrity at UNIST in Ulsan, South Korea (tgartner@ibs.re.kr); Mr. Bae Daewoong, Head of Communications Team, Institute for Basic Science (IBS) (+82-42-878-8195, woongs@ibs.re.kr); or Ms. Dahee Carol Kim, Public Information Officer of IBS & Science Communicator (+82-42-878-8133, clitie620@ibs.re.kr).

- About the Institute for Basic Science (IBS)
IBS was founded in 2011 by the government of the Republic of Korea with the sole purpose of driving forward the development of basic science in South Korea. IBS has 30 research centers as of January 2019. There are ten physics, two mathematics, six chemistry, six life science, one Earth science, and five interdisciplinary research centers.

  • [phys.org] First systematic report on the tug-of-war between DNA damage and repair
  • [sciencedaily] First systematic report on the tug-of-war between DNA damage and repair
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    Last Update 2019-12-17 14:52