Induction of linear tracks of DNA double-strand breaks by alpha-particle irradiation of cells

Nat Methods. 2008 Mar;5(3):261-6. doi: 10.1038/nmeth.f.206.


Understanding how cells maintain genome integrity when challenged with DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) is of major importance, particularly since the discovery of multiple links of DSBs with genome instability and cancer-predisposition disorders. Ionizing radiation is the agent of choice to produce DSBs in cells; however, targeting DSBs and monitoring changes in their position over time can be difficult. Here we describe a procedure for induction of easily recognizable linear arrays of DSBs in nuclei of adherent eukaryotic cells by exposing the cells to alpha particles from a small Americium source (Box 1). Each alpha particle traversing the cell nucleus induces a linear array of DSBs, typically 10-20 DSBs per 10 mum track length. Because alpha particles cannot penetrate cell-culture plastic or coverslips, it is necessary to irradiate cells through a Mylar membrane. We describe setup and irradiation procedures for two types of experiments: immunodetection of DSB response proteins in fixed cells grown in Mylar-bottom culture dishes (Option A) and detection of fluorescently labeled DSB-response proteins in living cells irradiated through a Mylar membrane placed on top of the cells (Option B). Using immunodetection, recruitment of repair proteins to individual DSB sites as early as 30 s after irradiation can be detected. Furthermore, combined with fluorescence live-cell microscopy of fluorescently tagged DSB-response proteins, this technique allows spatiotemporal analysis of the DSB repair response in living cells. Although the procedures might seem a bit intimidating, in our experience, once the source and the setup are ready, it is easy to obtain results. Because the live-cell procedure requires more hands-on experience, we recommend starting with the fixed-cell application.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alpha Particles*
  • Americium
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • DNA / radiation effects*
  • DNA Damage*
  • Humans


  • DNA
  • Americium