Positive elongation factor b (P-TEFb) is a cellular protein kinase that is required for RNA polymerase II (RNAP II) transcriptional elongation of protein coding genes. P-TEFb is a set of different molecular complexes, each containing CDK9 as the catalytic subunit. There are two isoforms of the CDK9 protein - the major 42KDa CDK9 isoform and the minor 55KDa isoform that is translated from an in-frame mRNA that arises from an upstream transcriptional start site. We found that shRNA depletion of the 55K CDK9 protein in HeLa cells induces apoptosis and double-strand DNA breaks (DSBs). The levels of apoptosis and DSBs induced by the depletion were reduced by expression of a 55K CDK9 protein variant resistant to the shRNA, indicating that these phenotypes are the consequence of depletion of the 55K protein and not off-target effects. We also found that the 55K CDK9 protein, but not the 42K CDK9 protein, specifically associates with Ku70, a protein involved in DSB repair. Our findings suggest that the 55K CDK9 protein may function in repair of DNA through an association with Ku70.
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