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The clock-like accumulation of germline and somatic mutations can arise from the interplay of DNA damage and repair.

PLoS Biology 2024 June 18
The rates at which mutations accumulate across human cell types vary. To identify causes of this variation, mutations are often decomposed into a combination of the single-base substitution (SBS) "signatures" observed in germline, soma, and tumors, with the idea that each signature corresponds to one or a small number of underlying mutagenic processes. Two such signatures turn out to be ubiquitous across cell types: SBS signature 1, which consists primarily of transitions at methylated CpG sites thought to be caused by spontaneous deamination, and the more diffuse SBS signature 5, which is of unknown etiology. In cancers, the number of mutations attributed to these 2 signatures accumulates linearly with age of diagnosis, and thus the signatures have been termed "clock-like." To better understand this clock-like behavior, we develop a mathematical model that includes DNA replication errors, unrepaired damage, and damage repaired incorrectly. We show that mutational signatures can exhibit clock-like behavior because cell divisions occur at a constant rate and/or because damage rates remain constant over time, and that these distinct sources can be teased apart by comparing cell lineages that divide at different rates. With this goal in mind, we analyze the rate of accumulation of mutations in multiple cell types, including soma as well as male and female germline. We find no detectable increase in SBS signature 1 mutations in neurons and only a very weak increase in mutations assigned to the female germline, but a significant increase with time in rapidly dividing cells, suggesting that SBS signature 1 is driven by rounds of DNA replication occurring at a relatively fixed rate. In contrast, SBS signature 5 increases with time in all cell types, including postmitotic ones, indicating that it accumulates independently of cell divisions; this observation points to errors in DNA repair as the key underlying mechanism. Thus, the 2 "clock-like" signatures observed across cell types likely have distinct origins, one set by rates of cell division, the other by damage rates.

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