Among cell cycle regulatory proteins that are activated following DNA damage, the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21(CDKN1A) plays essential roles in the DNA damage response, by inducing cell cycle arrest, direct inhibition of DNA replication, as well as by regulating fundamental processes, like apoptosis and transcription. These functions are performed through the ability of p21 to interact with a number of proteins involved in these processes. Despite an initial controversy, during the last years several lines of evidence have also indicated that p21 may be directly involved in DNA repair. In particular, the participation of p21 in nucleotide excision repair (NER), base excision repair (BER), and DNA translesion synthesis (TLS), has been suggested to occur thanks to its interaction with proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA), a crucial protein involved in several aspects of DNA metabolism, and cell-cycle regulation. In this review, the multiple roles of p21 in the DNA damage response, including regulation of cell cycle, apoptosis and gene transcription, are discussed together with the most recent findings supporting the direct participation of p21 protein in DNA repair processes. In particular, spatio-temporal dynamics of p21 recruitment to sites of DNA damage will be considered together with several lines of evidence indicating a regulatory role for p21. In addition, the relevance of post-translational regulation in the fate (e.g. degradation) of p21 protein after cell exposure to DNA damaging agents will be analyzed. Both sets of evidence will be discussed in terms of the overall DNA damage response.
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