In eukaryotes DNA replication takes place in the S phase of the cell cycle. It initiates from hundreds to thousands of replication origins in a coordinated manner, in order to efficiently duplicate the genome. The sequence of events leading to the onset of DNA replication is conventionally divided in two interdependent processes: licensing-a process during which replication origins acquire replication competence but are kept inactive- and firing-a process during which licensed origins are activated but not re-licensed. In this review we investigate the evolutionary conservation of the molecular machinery orchestrating DNA replication initiation both in yeast and in mammalian cells, highlighting a remarkable conservation of the general architecture of this central biological mechanism. Many steps are conserved down to molecular details and are performed by orthologous proteins with high sequence conservation, while differences in molecular structure of the performing proteins and their interactions are apparent in other steps. Tight regulation of initiation of DNA replication is achieved through protein phosphorylation, exerted mostly by Cyclin-dependent kinases in order to ensure that each chromosome is fully replicated once, and only once, during each cycle, and to avoid the formation of aberrant DNA structures and incorrect chromosomal duplication, that in mammalian cells are a prerequisite for genome instability and tumorigenesis. We then consider a molecular mathematical model of DNA replication, recently proposed by our group in a collaborative project, as a frame of reference to discuss similarities and differences observed in the regulatory program controlling DNA replication initiation in yeast and in mammalian cells and discuss whether they may be dependent upon different functional constraints. We conclude that a systems biology approach, integrating molecular analysis with modeling and computational investigations, is the best choice to investigate the control of DNA replication in mammalian cells.
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