New & Noteworthy

As Good as the Original

December 7, 2012

Unlike the rest of us, cells are happy with either a copy or the original.

If you got to choose between an original and a copy of that original, you’d undoubtedly choose the original. Because of mistakes during the copying process, the original is bound to be superior.

Cairns was the first scientist to try to apply the same logic to cells like mother cells of the budding yeast S. cerevisiae, or stem cells. The idea is that since these cells make lots of copies of themselves, they might have some mechanism for keeping the original DNA and sending the copies to the new cells. This would protect the original DNA from building up mutations.

While this seems reasonable, the many studies done to date have failed to provide any compelling evidence to support the idea. When scientists look at a cell’s DNA in bulk, they see it randomly dividing between mother and daughter. But this is not the end of the story.

Another idea people have had is that one of the strands of the double helix is kept in its original form in the mother while the other is free to be passed on to the daughter. There is mounting evidence in yeast and mammalian cells that there is some strand-specific selection going on. But in a new study out in GENETICS, Keyes and coworkers show that this selection is not dependent on a strand being an original as opposed to a copy.

If mother cells preferentially keep one of the strands, then the red ones should only end up in the MD and DM cell types in this experiment. The real results were that all four cell populations had the red DNA. (Image from Keyes et al. used with permission from GENETICS)

They use a couple of cool tricks to be able to follow specific strands of DNA in specific cell types in these experiments. First, they engineered a strain that would incorporate BrdU (bromodeoxyuridine) into newly synthesized DNA, so that they could distinguish between the original and copied strands. Second, they used a technique to separate mother cells from daughter cells that involves arresting the mother cells with alpha factor, labeling them with biotin, and then allowing them to divide: the mothers can be pulled away from the daughters by their biotin labels.

As you can see from the image on the right, Keyes and coworkers let a population of biotin-labeled mother cells divide once in the presence of BrdU. Next they separated mothers (M) from daughters (D) and biotinylated the daughters.

Next they let the two populations divide separately one more time in unlabeled thymidine (TdR) instead of BrdU, and separated mothers from daughters again. As shown in the figure, this allowed them to isolate four different cell populations:

1) MM: the original mother cells
2) MD: daughters of the original mothers
3) DM: mother cells derived from the first daughter
4) DD: daughters of the first daughter

The image shows the prediction if the Watson strand (W) is preferentially kept by the mother. As you follow along, remember that the red strand represents the labeled DNA.

If mother cells inherit the Watson strand specifically (W) and the daughter cell always gets the Crick strand (C), then we would predict that only MD and DM cells should have BrdU DNA. The other two cell types should only have unlabeled DNA.

Let’s follow the mother side to see why. The mother cell would inherit the unlabeled Watson strand and a labeled Crick strand because she would keep the original from the first division. The labeled and so copied Crick strand would then be passed preferentially to the daughter.

The same sort of logic applies to the daughter cell. The daughter inherited the labeled Crick strand. Since this daughter now becomes the mother in the next division, the labeled strand now becomes the Watson strand. She would keep this labeled strand and pass the unlabeled Crick strand to her daughter.

These are not the results they got. Instead, all the cell types had pretty close to the same amounts of BrdU. The moms did not preferentially hang on to either the original Watson or Crick strand.

They then followed this up with a separate, similar experiment that looked at each individual chromosome on a microarray. The results were that there was no bias for either strand for any of the chromosomes.

It seems that mom doesn’t hang onto the original DNA even at a single chromosome. In the cases of strand-specific selection that are now being studied, there are most likely other ways to pick a strand that have nothing to do with whether it is an original or a copy. Another great idea foiled by data…