Non-B DNA-forming sequences and WRN deficiency independently increase the frequency of base substitution in human cells

J Biol Chem. 2011 Mar 25;286(12):10017-26. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M110.176636. Epub 2011 Feb 1.


Although alternative DNA secondary structures (non-B DNA) can induce genomic rearrangements, their associated mutational spectra remain largely unknown. The helicase activity of WRN, which is absent in the human progeroid Werner syndrome, is thought to counteract this genomic instability. We determined non-B DNA-induced mutation frequencies and spectra in human U2OS osteosarcoma cells and assessed the role of WRN in isogenic knockdown (WRN-KD) cells using a supF gene mutation reporter system flanked by triplex- or Z-DNA-forming sequences. Although both non-B DNA and WRN-KD served to increase the mutation frequency, the increase afforded by WRN-KD was independent of DNA structure despite the fact that purified WRN helicase was found to resolve these structures in vitro. In U2OS cells, ∼70% of mutations comprised single-base substitutions, mostly at G·C base-pairs, with the remaining ∼30% being microdeletions. The number of mutations at G·C base-pairs in the context of NGNN/NNCN sequences correlated well with predicted free energies of base stacking and ionization potentials, suggesting a possible origin via oxidation reactions involving electron loss and subsequent electron transfer (hole migration) between neighboring bases. A set of ∼40,000 somatic mutations at G·C base pairs identified in a lung cancer genome exhibited similar correlations, implying that hole migration may also be involved. We conclude that alternative DNA conformations, WRN deficiency and lung tumorigenesis may all serve to increase the mutation rate by promoting, through diverse pathways, oxidation reactions that perturb the electron orbitals of neighboring bases. It follows that such "hole migration" is likely to play a much more widespread role in mutagenesis than previously anticipated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • DNA, Z-Form / genetics
  • DNA, Z-Form / metabolism*
  • Exodeoxyribonucleases*
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Genomic Instability*
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / genetics
  • Lung Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • RecQ Helicases*
  • Sequence Deletion*
  • Werner Syndrome Helicase


  • DNA, Z-Form
  • Exodeoxyribonucleases
  • RecQ Helicases
  • WRN protein, human
  • Werner Syndrome Helicase