Holliday junction trap shows how cells use recombination and a junction-guardian role of RecQ helicase

Sci Adv. 2016 Nov 18;2(11):e1601605. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1601605. eCollection 2016 Nov.


DNA repair by homologous recombination (HR) underpins cell survival and fuels genome instability, cancer, and evolution. However, the main kinds and sources of DNA damage repaired by HR in somatic cells and the roles of important HR proteins remain elusive. We present engineered proteins that trap, map, and quantify Holliday junctions (HJs), a central DNA intermediate in HR, based on catalytically deficient mutant RuvC protein of Escherichia coli. We use RuvCDefGFP (RDG) to map genomic footprints of HR at defined DNA breaks in E. coli and demonstrate genome-scale directionality of double-strand break (DSB) repair along the chromosome. Unexpectedly, most spontaneous HR-HJ foci are instigated, not by DSBs, but rather by single-stranded DNA damage generated by replication. We show that RecQ, the E. coli ortholog of five human cancer proteins, nonredundantly promotes HR-HJ formation in single cells and, in a novel junction-guardian role, also prevents apparent non-HR-HJs promoted by RecA overproduction. We propose that one or more human RecQ orthologs may act similarly in human cancers overexpressing the RecA ortholog RAD51 and find that cancer genome expression data implicate the orthologs BLM and RECQL4 in conjunction with EME1 and GEN1 as probable HJ reducers in such cancers. Our results support RecA-overproducing E. coli as a model of the many human tumors with up-regulated RAD51 and provide the first glimpses of important, previously elusive reaction intermediates in DNA replication and repair in single living cells.

Keywords: BLM; DNA repair; DNA replication; Escherichia coli; RecQ family proteins; RuvC; cancer; holliday junctions; homologous recombination; spontaneous DNA damage.

MeSH terms

  • DNA Breaks, Single-Stranded*
  • DNA, Bacterial* / genetics
  • DNA, Bacterial* / metabolism
  • DNA, Cruciform* / genetics
  • DNA, Cruciform* / metabolism
  • DNA, Neoplasm / genetics
  • DNA, Neoplasm / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli* / genetics
  • Escherichia coli* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Neoplasm Proteins / genetics
  • Neoplasm Proteins / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Rad51 Recombinase / genetics
  • Rad51 Recombinase / metabolism
  • RecQ Helicases* / genetics
  • RecQ Helicases* / metabolism
  • Recombination, Genetic*


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • DNA, Cruciform
  • DNA, Neoplasm
  • Neoplasm Proteins
  • RAD51 protein, human
  • Rad51 Recombinase
  • RECQL4 protein, human
  • RecQ protein, E coli
  • RecQ Helicases