Eichman Lab members involved in the study (from left to right): Dr. Elwood Mullins, Dr. Brandt Eichman, Rongxin Shi, and Dr. Zachary Parsons. Photo Credit: Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt
The DNA of humans, like that of all other organisms, can be damaged, acquiring what are referred to as “lesions.” A common form of DNA damage is DNA alkylation, where a small group of carbons and hydrogens (alkyl group) are chemically bound to the base of DNA nucleotides (the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that make up DNA). When a DNA base is alkylated, the normal function of the cell’s DNA is disrupted and the genetic information being stored is mutated, which has the potential to develop into some types of cancer and threaten the survival of the organism.
To protect the organism from the effects of DNA lesions, cells have processes to repair DNA. One such process is called base excision repair, which was one subject of last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. As shown in the figure below, base excision repair begins with DNA glycosylase (ie. a protein with enzymatic function that initiates a process), which is able to bind to double-stranded DNA and look for DNA lesions using a base-flipping mechanism. In base-flipping, a DNA nucleotide that is suspected of containing an alkyl group is flipped away from its base pair partner and into the active site of the DNA glycosylase. If the DNA glycosylase sees a lesion, it severs the chemical bond that links the DNA base to the DNA backbone and initiates subsequent repair steps, ultimately restoring the DNA to an undamaged state.
Until recently, it was thought that all DNA glycosylases used base-flipping to repair damaged DNA. A paradigm shift occurred in the DNA repair field when a non-base-flipping DNA glycosylase enzyme, called AlkD, was discovered by Professor Dr. Brandt Eichman in the Department of Biological Sciences and Center for Structural Biology at Vanderbilt University and his research group, in collaboration with Professor Dr. Sheila David and her research group at University of California Davis and Professor Dr. Yasuhiro Igarashi at the Toyama Prefectural University in Japan. Repair that does not involve base-flipping has also been shown by the Eichman team to uniquely allow the repair of bulky DNA lesions.
As described in a recent publication in Nature, the Eichman research team used a technique called X-ray crystallography to capture a series of time-lapsed 3D renderings of AlkD as it repaired a lesion. The Eichman team’s conclusion that AlkD removes DNA damage using a non-base-flipping mechanism was supported by their crystallographic analysis which showed the AlkD enzyme mainly contacted the DNA backbone, not the DNA lesion. Thus, non-base-flipping broadens the spectrum of DNA damage that DNA glycosylases are known to repair. Also, the 3D structure of AlkD is common to proteins that do not have enzymatic functions, which makes it difficult for researchers to identify non-base-flipping DNA glycosylases just based on their structure. Therefore, there is a strong possibility there are other DNA repair proteins that scientists have yet to identify.
When asked about the broader impacts of his research, Dr. Eichman responded: “This research program has involved trainees from all levels—undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral—several of whom have continued on in a number of scientific careers, including medical school, science policy, and industry. Most importantly, it has enabled us to expose undergraduates to cutting edge structural biology and to the practical aspects of X-ray crystallography, both in the classroom and in the lab.”
This work is funded jointly by the Genetic Mechanisms program in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) and the Chemistry of Life Processes Program in the Division of Chemistry in the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Award #MCB-1122098 and Award #MCB-1517695.