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Mutated form of DNA repair protein may shed light on its role in preventing cancer

October 31, 2019
Clemson University
Researchers created a mutated version of RAD51, a DNA repair protein, to better understand its critical functions at key steps in the cell replication process during times of stress. This work may help cancer biology scientists better understand how cells protect DNA from damage during replication. Defects in this pathway may play a role in causing cancer and a better understanding of the process may lead to better treatment strategies someday.

Two trillion times each day, the cells in a typical human divide to replace old, damaged or dead cells. Before a cell divides, though, it makes an exact copy of its DNA, which will be passed on to the new cells.

To start the copying process, the DNA double helix unwinds so each strand can serve as a template for the new DNA. Scientists refer to the unwound DNA as a replication fork because the two strands resemble a two-tined fork. As this highly complex replication process progresses, the two strands of the original DNA can break or be damaged thousands of times.

"They're actually a pretty big assault on the cell, which is why the cells have elaborate mechanisms to make sure the replication process is protected."

Emerging evidence indicates that a pathway to repair DNA breaks, known as homologous recombination (HR), has additional break-independent roles at stalled replication forks. A key factor in HR is a protein called RAD51, which binds to the single DNA strand at the broken end and backs up the forks by converting them into a structure that resembles a chicken foot -- a process known as fork regression.

In a recent study, Mason created a mutated version of RAD51 to better understand its critical functions at stalled replication forks.

"We made a recombination-defective RAD51 variant that can still bind DNA, but it cannot search for the intact copy of DNA or perform strand exchange," Mason said. "The more we understand the process, the more likely we are to figure out how it goes wrong in cancer and we can help with improved treatment strategies down the road."

In her study, which was recently published online in Nature Communications, Mason discovered RAD51's strand exchange activity is not required for fork regression, but is important to restart replication once the obstacle has been removed.

"The field wants to figure out what role this pathway has in cancer and what each of the players are doing," Mason said. "This study provides a missing piece in a very big puzzle that we are still trying to figure out."

In the short term, Mason said, other scientists in the cancer biology field can apply the mutated RAD51 gene to their own research to help unravel the replication process further and better understand how breaks are repaired.

Mason's co-author on the paper is Douglas Bishop, a faculty member at the University of Chicago and Mason's former post-doctoral research adviser.

This work was funded by the National Institutes of Health grants GM50936 to D.K.B., CA205518-01 to D.K.B. The researchers are wholly responsible for the content of this study, of which the funders had no input.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Clemson University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Jennifer M. Mason, Yuen-Ling Chan, Ralph W. Weichselbaum, Douglas K. Bishop. Non-enzymatic roles of human RAD51 at stalled replication forks. Nature Communications, 2019; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-12297-0

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Clemson University. "Mutated form of DNA repair protein may shed light on its role in preventing cancer." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 October 2019. <>.
Clemson University. (2019, October 31). Mutated form of DNA repair protein may shed light on its role in preventing cancer. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 23, 2024 from
Clemson University. "Mutated form of DNA repair protein may shed light on its role in preventing cancer." ScienceDaily. (accessed July 23, 2024).

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