Interstrand cross-links (ICLs) are formed by many chemotherapeutic agents and may also arise endogenously. The mechanisms used to repair these lesions remain unclear in mammalian cells. Repair in Escherichia coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae requires an initial unhooking step to release the tethered DNA strands. We used a panel of linear substrates containing different site-specific ICLs to characterize how structure affects ICL processing in mammalian cell extracts. We demonstrate that ICL-induced distortions affect NER-dependent and -independent processing events. The NER-dependent pathway produces dual incisions 5′ to the site of the ICL as described previously [Bessho, T., et al. (1997) Mol. Cell. Biol. 17 (12), 6822-6830] but does not release the cross-link. Surprisingly, we also found that the interstrand cross-linked duplexes were unhooked in mammalian cell extracts in a manner independent of the NER pathway. Unhooking occurred identically in extracts prepared from human and rodent cells and is dependent on ATP hydrolysis and metal ions. The structure of the unhooked product was characterized and was found to contain the remnant of the cross-link. Both the NER-mediated dual 5′ incisions and unhooking reactions were greatly stimulated by ICL-induced distortions, including increased local flexibility and disruption of base pairs surrounding the site of the ICL. These results suggest that in DNA not undergoing transcription or replication, distortions induced by the presence of an ICL could contribute significantly to initial cross-link recognition and processing.
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