The nucleolus is a nuclear sub-domain containing the most highly transcribed genes in the genome. Hundreds of human ribosomal RNA (rRNA) genes, located in the nucleolus, rely on constant maintenance. DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) in rRNA genes activate the ATM kinase, repress rRNA transcription and induce nucleolar cap formation. Yet how ribosomal-DNA (rDNA) lesions are detected and processed remains elusive. Here, we use CRISPR/Cas9-mediated induction of DSBs and report a chromatin response unique to rDNA depending on ATM-phosphorylation of the nucleolar protein TCOF1 and recruitment of the MRE11-RAD50-NBS1 (MRN) complex via the NBS1-subunit. NBS1- and MRE11-depleted cells fail to suppress rRNA transcription and to translocate rDNA into nucleolar caps. Furthermore, the DNA damage response (DDR) kinase ATR operates downstream of the ATM-TCOF1-MRN interplay and is required to fully suppress rRNA transcription and complete DSB-induced nucleolar restructuring. Unexpectedly, we find that DSBs in rDNA neither activate checkpoint kinases CHK1/CHK2 nor halt cell-cycle progression, yet the nucleolar-DDR protects against genomic aberrations and cell death. Our data highlight the concept of a specialized nucleolar DNA damage response (n-DDR) with a distinct protein composition, spatial organization and checkpoint communication. The n-DDR maintains integrity of ribosomal RNA genes, with implications for cell physiology and disease.
© The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Nucleic Acids Research.