DNA Repair Inhibition Leads to Active Export of Repetitive Sequences to the Cytoplasm Triggering an Inflammatory Response

J Neurosci. 2021 Nov 10;41(45):9286-9307. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0845-21.2021. Epub 2021 Sep 30.


Adult-onset neurodegenerative diseases are often accompanied by evidence of a chronic inflammation that includes activation of microglial cells and altered levels of brain cytokines. Aspects of this response are likely secondary reactions to neurodegeneration, but for many illnesses the inflammation may itself be an early and even causative disease event. In such cases, the inflammation is referred to as "sterile" as it occurs in the absence of an actual bacterial or viral pathogen. A potent trigger of sterile inflammation in CNS microglia has been shown to be the presence of DNA in the cytoplasm (cytoDNA) induced either by direct DNA damage or by inhibited DNA repair. We have shown that cytoDNA comes from the cell nucleus as a result of insufficient DNA damage repair. Using wild-type and Atm-/- mouse microglia, we extend these observations here by showing that its genomic origins are not random, but rather are heavily biased toward transcriptionally inactive, intergenic regions, in particular repetitive elements and AT-rich sequences. Once released from the genome, in both males and females, we show that cytoDNA is actively exported to the cytoplasm by a CRM1-dependent mechanism. In the cytoplasm, it is degraded either by a cytosolic exonuclease, Trex1, or an autophagy pathway that ends with degradation in the lysosome. Blocking the accumulation of cytoDNA prevents the emergence of the sterile inflammation reaction. These findings offer new insights into the emergence of sterile inflammation and offer novel approaches that may be of use in combatting a wide range of neurodegenerative conditions.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Sterile inflammation describes a state where the defenses of the immune system are activated in the absence of a true pathogen. A potent trigger of this unorthodox response is the presence of DNA in the cytoplasm, which immune cells interpret as an invading virus or pathogen. We show that when DNA damage increases, fragments of the cell's own genome are actively exported to the cytoplasm where they are normally degraded. If this degradation is incomplete an immune reaction is triggered. Both age and stress increase DNA damage, and as age-related neurodegenerative diseases are frequently accompanied by a chronic low-level inflammation, strategies that reduce the induction of cytoplasmic DNA or speed its clearance become attractive therapeutic targets.

Keywords: DNA damage; cytoplasmic DNA; inflammation; microglia; repetitive elements.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cytoplasm / immunology*
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism
  • DNA / immunology*
  • DNA / metabolism
  • DNA Damage / immunology*
  • DNA Repair
  • Female
  • Inflammation / immunology*
  • Inflammation / metabolism
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Microglia / immunology
  • Microglia / metabolism
  • Repetitive Sequences, Nucleic Acid / immunology*


  • DNA