DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) are known to be powerful inducers of homologous recombination (HR), but single-strand breaks (nicks) have also been shown to trigger HR. Both DSB- and nick-induced HR ((nick)HR) are exploited in advanced genome-engineering approaches based on the bacterial RNA-guided nuclease Cas9. However, the mechanisms of (nick)HR are largely unexplored. Here, we applied Cas9 nickases to study (nick)HR in mammalian cells. We find that (nick)HR is unaffected by inhibition of major damage signaling kinases and that it is not suppressed by nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ) components, arguing that nick processing does not require a DSB intermediate to trigger HR. Relative to a single nick, nicking both strands enhances HR, consistent with a DSB intermediate, even when nicks are induced up to ∼1kb apart. Accordingly, HR and NHEJ compete for repair of these paired nicks, but, surprisingly, only when 5' overhangs or blunt ends can be generated. Our study advances the understanding of molecular mechanisms driving nick and paired-nick repair in mammalian cells and clarify phenomena associated with Cas9-mediated genome editing.
© The Author(s) 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.