Using a new imaging technique, National Institutes of Health researchers have found that the biological machinery that builds DNA can insert molecules into the DNA strand that are damaged as a result of environmental exposures. These damaged molecules trigger cell death that produces some human diseases, according to the researchers. The work, appearing online Nov. 17 in the journal Nature, provides a possible explanation for how one type of DNA damage may lead to cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular and lung disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Until this paper, no one had actually seen how the polymerase did it or understood the downstream implications.”Time-lapse crystallography was used by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) researchers to determine that DNA polymerase, the enzyme responsible for assembling the nucleotides or building blocks of DNA, incorporates nucleotides with a specific kind of damage into the DNA strand. Time-lapse crystallography is a technique that takes snapshots of biochemical reactions occurring in cells.
Samuel Wilson, M.D., senior NIEHS researcher on the team, explained that the damage is caused by oxidative stress, or the generation of free oxygen molecules, in response to environmental factors, such as ultraviolet exposure, diet, and chemical compounds in paints, plastics, and other consumer products. He said scientists suspected that the DNA polymerase was inserting nucleotides that were damaged by carrying an additional oxygen atom.
“When one of these oxidized nucleotides is placed into the DNA strand, it can’t pair with the opposing nucleotide as usual, which leaves a gap in the DNA,” Wilson said. “Until this paper, no one had actually seen how the polymerase did it or understood the downstream implications.”