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Discovering DNA repair genes in C. elegans
Edward R. Winstead


Researchers have identified 23 genes involved in recognizing and repairing mistakes in the DNA of the soil worm Caenorhabditis elegans. One of the 23 genes is the counterpart to a human 'repair' gene involved in a form of leukemia. In humans and other organisms, repair genes play a critical role in health because they correct errors in the genetic code and cause the death of mutant cells. The goal of the research is to find new repair genes in humans.

Detail from map of protein interactions involved in DNA repair. View larger

Marc Vidal, of Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues developed a system for identifying the C. elegans repair genes. They screened the worm's complete genome sequence for counterparts to known repair genes and identified pairs of interacting proteins likely to be involved in repair processes. They then confirmed a gene's role in repair by disrupting it in the worm. Defects in repair genes lead to recognizable abnormalities such as the uncontrolled growth of cells.

Eleven of the 23 C. elegans genes had not been previously identified as repair genes in any organism. Ten of the eleven genes have apparent counterparts in humans. One of these is related to the human BCL3 gene, which is often mutated in patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

The similarities between the human and worm genes "highlight the extraordinary level of conservation of molecular mechanisms" in DNA repair across species, the researchers observe in Science. An important next step, they add, will be to determine whether mutations in any of the human counterpart genes identified predispose individuals to developing cancer.

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Boulton, S. J. et al. Combined functional genomic maps of the C. elegans DNA damage response. Science 295, 127-131 (January 4, 2002).

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