DNA double-strand breaks and chromosomal aberrations after treatment with N-alkylating agents likely arise as a result of replication fork collision with single-strand breaks generated during base excision repair.
Exposures that methylate DNA potently induce DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) and chromosomal aberrations, which are thought to arise when damaged bases block DNA replication. Here, we demonstrate that DNA methylation damage causes DSB formation when replication interferes with base excision repair (BER), the predominant pathway for repairing methylated bases. We show that cells defective in the N-methylpurine DNA glycosylase, which fail to remove N-methylpurines from DNA and do not initiate BER, display strongly reduced levels of methylation-induced DSBs and chromosomal aberrations compared with wild-type cells. Also, cells unable to generate single-strand breaks (SSBs) at apurinic/apyrimidinic sites do not form DSBs immediately after methylation damage. In contrast, cells deficient in x-ray cross-complementing protein 1, DNA polymerase β, or poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase 1 activity, all of which fail to seal SSBs induced at apurinic/apyrimidinic sites, exhibit strongly elevated levels of methylation-induced DSBs and chromosomal aberrations. We propose that DSBs and chromosomal aberrations after treatment with N-alkylators arise when replication forks collide with SSBs generated during BER.