Dysfunctional mammalian telomeres join with DNA double-strand breaks

Susan M. Bailey, Michael N. Cornforth, Robert L. Ullrich, Edwin H. Goodwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


In addition to joining broken DNA strands, several non-homologous end-joining (NHEJ) proteins have a second seemingly antithetical role in constructing functional telomeres, the nucleoprotein structures at the termini of linear eukaryotic chromosomes that prevent joining between natural chromosome ends. Although NHEJ deficiency impairs double-strand break (DSB) repair, it also promotes inappropriate chromosomal end fusions that are observed microscopically as dicentric chromosomes with telomeric DNA sequence at points of joining. Here, we test the proposition that unprotected telomeres can fuse not only to other dysfunctional telomeres, but also to ends created by DSBs. Severe combined immunodeficiency (scid) is caused by a mutation in the catalytic subunit of DNA-dependent protein kinase (DNA-PK), an enzyme required for both efficient DSB repair and telomeric end-capping. Cells derived from wild-type, Trp53-/-, scid, and Trp53-/-/scid mice were exposed to gamma radiation to induce DSBs, and chromosomal aberrations were analyzed using a novel cytogenetic technique that can detect joining of a telomere to a DSB end. Telomere-DSB fusions were observed in both cell lines having the scid mutation, but not in wild-type nor Trp53-/- cells. Over a range of 25-340cGy, half of the visible exchange-type chromosomal aberrations in Trp53-/-/scid cells involved telomere-DSB fusions. Our results demonstrate that unprotected telomeres are not only sensed as, but also acted upon, by the DNA repair machinery as if they were DSB ends. By opening a new pathway for misrepair, telomere-DSB fusion decreases the overall fidelity of DSB repair. The high frequency of these events in scid cells indicates telomere dysfunction makes a strong, and previously unsuspected, contribution to the characteristic radiation sensitivity associated with DNA-PK deficiency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)349-357
Number of pages9
JournalDNA Repair
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2004


  • ALT
  • Alternative lengthening of telomeres
  • DNA-PK
  • DNA-PKcs
  • DNA-dependent protein kinase
  • DNA-dependent protein kinase catalytic subunit
  • DSB
  • Double-strand break
  • FISH
  • Fluorescence in situ hybridization
  • TRF2
  • Telomere repeat binding factor 2

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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