Ionizing radiation and genetic risks XIV. Potential research directions in the post-genome era based on knowledge of repair of radiation-induced DNA double-strand breaks in mammalian somatic cells and the origin of deletions associated with human genomic disorders

K Sankaranarayanan, J S Wassom
Mutation Research 2005 October 15, 578 (1): 333-70
Recent estimates of genetic risks from exposure of human populations to ionizing radiation are those presented in the 2001 report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). These estimates incorporate two important concepts, namely, the following: (1) most radiation-induced mutations are DNA deletions, often encompassing multiple genes, but only a small proportion of the induced deletions is compatible with offspring viability; and (2) the viability-compatible deletions induced in germ cells are more likely to manifest themselves as multi-system developmental anomalies rather than as single gene disorders. This paper: (a) pursues these concepts further in the light of knowledge of mechanisms of origin of deletions and other rearrangements from two fields of contemporary research: repair of radiation-induced DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in mammalian somatic cells and human molecular genetics; and (b) extends them to deletions induced in the germ cell stages of importance for radiation risk estimation, namely, stem cell spermatogonia in males and oocytes in females. DSB repair studies in somatic cells have elucidated the roles of two mechanistically distinct pathways, namely, homologous recombination repair (HRR) that utilizes extensive sequence homology and non-homologous end-joining (NHEJ) that requires little or no homology at the junctions. A third process, single-strand annealing (SSA), which utilizes short direct repeat sequences, is considered a variant of HRR. HRR is most efficient in late S and G2 phases of the cell cycle and is a high fidelity mechanism. NHEJ operates in all cell cycle phases, but is especially important in G1. In the context of radiation-induced DSBs, NHEJ is error-prone. SSA is also an error-prone mechanism and its role is presumably similar to that of HRR. Studies in human molecular genetics have demonstrated that the occurrence of large deletions, duplications or other rearrangements in certain regions of the genome is related to the presence of large segments of repetitive DNA called segmental duplications (also called duplicons or low copy repeats, LCRs) in such regions. The mechanism that is envisaged for the origin of deletions and other rearrangements involves misalignment of region-specific LCRs of homologous chromosomes in meiosis followed by unequal crossing-over (i.e., non-allelic homologous recombination, NAHR). We hypothesize that: (a) in spermatogonial stem cells, NHEJ is probably the principal mechanism underlying the origin of radiation-induced deletions, although SSA and NAHR may also be involved to some extent, especially at low doses; and (b) in irradiated oocytes, NAHR is likely to be the main mechanism for generating deletions. We suggest future research possibilities, including the development of models for identifying regions of the genome that are susceptible to radiation-induced deletions. Such efforts may have particular significance in the context of the estimation of genetic risks of radiation exposure of human females, a problem that is still with us.

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