Every time a human or bacterial cell divides it first must copy its DNA. Specialized proteins unzip the intertwined DNA strands while others follow and build new strands, using the originals as templates. Whenever these proteins encounter a break – and there are many – they stop and retreat, allowing a new cast of molecular players to enter the scene.
Scientists have long sought to understand how one of these players, a repair protein known as RecA in bacterial cells, helps broken DNA find a way to bridge the gap. They knew that RecA guided a broken DNA strand to a matching sequence on an adjoining bit of double-stranded DNA, but they didn’t know how. In a new study, researchers report they have identified how the RecA protein does its job.
“The puzzle for scientists has been: How does the damaged DNA look for and find its partner, the matching DNA, so that it can repair itself?” said University of Illinois physics professor Taekjip Ha, who led the study. “Because the genomic DNA is millions of bases long, this task is much like finding a needle in a haystack. We found the answer to how the cell does this so quickly.”
The research is described in a paper in eLife, a new open-access journal supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust. Ha is an HHMI investigator. The National Science Foundation provided primary funding for this work.
DNA repair is vital to health, vitality and longevity. Disruptions of the process can lead to the early onset of diseases associated with aging or cancer in animals. The breast cancer mutation known as BRCA2, for example, disrupts a gene involved in loading Rad51 (the human equivalent of RecA) onto a broken DNA strand to begin the process of repair.