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Breaking Up is Hard to Do

May 1, 2013

When a cell goes cancerous, its chromosomes get seriously messed up. Pieces get deleted, duplicated, mixed and matched. One of the worst things that can happen, in terms of a cell keeping its chromosomes together, is that a chromosome ends up with two centromeres.

Tug of War

When a chromosome gets pulled in two directions, it tears. No one wins that tug-of-war.

A centromere is the part of a chromosome that gets attached to the spindle so it can be moved to the right place during cell division. When there are two centromeres, both get attached and something has to give if the chromosome is pulled in two different directions. Often this means that the DNA of the chromosome breaks between the two centromeres.

This isn’t as simple as the rope breaking during a tug-of-war, though. A chromosome can withstand around 480 piconewtons of force before breaking, but the force exerted by the spindle that breaks the chromosome between the centromeres is just one piconewton or less. Clearly something else is going on to create those breaks!

In a new study out in GENETICS, Song and coworkers looked more closely at what happens when a dicentric chromosome breaks. They used a diploid strain of S. cerevisiae to show that where the DNA breaks is not random. In their experiments, the break tended to happen within 10 kilobases (kb) of the “foreign” centromere.

They used a previously described system where a conditional centromere was placed 50 kb from the normal centromere on chromosome III. This conditional centromere is only turned on in the absence of galactose. They then mated this strain to an unrelated one, resulting in a diploid with a high degree of heterozygosity. In other words, the chromosomes from each strain were different at lots of different places.

Song and coworkers streaked diploids from isolated colonies to a plate lacking galactose and then investigated how the yeast managed to resolve its double centromere issue. Two key ways that the yeast could eliminate the additional centromere involve crossing over between sister chromatids or break-induced repair. They focused on these as it is relatively easy to identify the DNA breakpoint. Because the two chromosomes in each pair are so different, they just needed to look for a loss of heterozygosity. In other words, where did the chromosomes become the same?

When they looked through 27 colonies, they found that the breaks weren’t randomly spread between the centromeres. Surprisingly, about half of them happened very near the conditional centromere. To make sure that there wasn’t something special about these sequences, they looked at two different strains with the conditional centromere located in different places on chromosome V instead of III. They obtained similar results.

Since the force exerted by the spindle isn’t enough to break the chromosome, there must be enzymes involved in creating the DNA breaks. But why do they prefer the region near the conditional centromere? One possibility is that the DNA there is stretched and is more open to enzymes. As the chromosome is being pulled apart, an enzyme gets into this region and manages to cut the DNA.

Although we don’t have time to go into it here, the paper also has a lot to say about the variety of ways that a diploid cell resolves its extra centromere in a way that allows it to survive. And that will inform the study of chromosome dynamics in all kinds of cells.

by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics