The nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ) pathway is the primary repair pathway for DNA double strand breaks (DSBs) in humans. Repair is mediated by a core complex of NHEJ factors that includes a ligase (DNA Ligase IV; L4) that relies on juxtaposition of 3΄ hydroxyl and 5΄ phosphate termini of the strand breaks for catalysis. However, chromosome breaks arising from biological sources often have different end chemistries, and how these different end chemistries impact the way in which the core complex directs the necessary transitions from end pairing to ligation is not known. Here, using single-molecule FRET (smFRET), we show that prior to ligation, differences in end chemistry strongly modulate the bridging of broken ends by the NHEJ core complex. In particular, the 5΄ phosphate group is a recognition element for L4 and is critical for the ability of NHEJ factors to promote stable pairing of ends. Moreover, other chemical incompatibilities, including products of aborted ligation, are sufficient to disrupt end pairing. Based on these observations, we propose a mechanism for iterative repair of DSBs by NHEJ.
© The Author(s) 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.