June 05, 2013
Like milk or eggs, most cells with linear chromosomes have a shelf life. Each time these cells divide, they lose a little off the end of their chromosomes. Eventually, too much is lost and the cells crap out. Or, to use a more scientific term, they become senescent.
But this is not the fate of every cell. Some cells, like those that go on to become sperm or eggs, use a reverse transcriptase called telomerase to extend their telomeres as part of their normal life cycle. And they aren’t the only ones. Around 85% of cancers hijack the telomerase and use it for their own nefarious ends.
The other 15% of cancers use a variety of different mechanisms to keep their telomeres from getting too short (Cesare and Reddel, 2010). All these different ways are lumped together in a single category called alternative lengthening of telomeres or ALT. The telomeres are lengthened in these cells by recombination with other telomeres, either those on other chromosomes or those that exist as shed, extrachromasomal bits.
While telomere extension may keep cells alive, it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. A double stranded DNA break is usually recognized as DNA damage. However, if the break happens near a telomere seed (a sequence that looks like a telomere), then the DNA damage response can be suppressed and the end can be extended into a new telomere, in a process called chromosome healing. But now the cell could be in trouble, with new, partial chromosomes being created and getting pulled this way and that.
In a new study out in GENETICS, Lai and Heierhorst decided to investigate whether chromosome healing happens in yeast cells that have stayed alive because of ALT. What they found was that chromosome healing at telomere seeds was suppressed in these post-senescence survivors.
They created these ALT dependent, post-senescence survivors from an est2 mutant strain that lacked the catalytic subunit of telomerase. Without telomerase, the only way for these cells to survive is by using ALT.
In the first experiment, they looked at whether the post-senescence survivors could create a new telomere by chromosome healing. The authors used a galactose inducible HO endonuclease to create a double stranded break near an 81 base pair sequence known to be a telomere seed sequence in wild type.
Broken DNA usually signals cells to pause the cell cycle until the damage is repaired. This is known as the DNA damage checkpoint. During chromosome healing in wild type, this checkpoint is suppressed so the chromosome break isn’t recognized as DNA damage.
In the post-senescence survivors, even after 21 hours there was no evidence of a telomere forming. They didn’t suppress the DNA damage checkpoint either.
Lai and Heierhorst determined that these ALT-dependent cells could still repair a different break that was not near a telomere seed sequence. They just couldn’t repair the break at the telomere seed. And this wasn’t because the DNA damage checkpoint was active. When they prevented the checkpoint by using a rad53 mutant, the telomere still wasn’t repaired.
Instead, the post-senescence survivors eventually repaired the break by some other mechanism, generating lots of differing products in the process. When they repaired breaks at sites that were not telomere seeds, they were able to use homologous recombination. But homologous recombination was suppressed at the telomere seed site.
Since ALT is used in cancer cells, and happens most often in some of the least-curable types of cancer, whatever we can learn about the process in yeast is valuable. It may give us clues on how to change the expiration date of those cancer cells to “ASAP”.
by D. Barry Starr, Ph.D., Director of Outreach Activities, Stanford Genetics