Exposure to mutagens can damage DNA and result in bulky lesions that distort the double-helix structure or impede proper transcription. Damaged DNA can be detected and repaired in a process called nucleotide excision repair (NER). NER employs a set of specialized proteins that first scan DNA to detect a damaged region. Next, NER proteins separate the strands and excise the damaged area. Finally, they coordinate the replacement with new, matching nucleotides.
Cells are regularly exposed to mutagens—factors in the environment which can damage DNA and generate mutations. UV radiation is one of the most common mutagens and is estimated to introduce a significant number of changes to DNA. These include bends or kinks in the structure which can block DNA replication or transcription. If these errors are not fixed, the damage can cause mutations which in turn can result in cancer or disease depending on which sequences are disrupted.
Nucleotide excision repair relies on specific protein complexes to recognize damaged regions of DNA and flag them for removal and repair. In prokaryotes, the process involves three proteins—UvrA, UvrB, and UvrC. The first two proteins work together as a complex, traveling along the DNA strands to detect any physical aberrations.
Once identified, the strands at the damaged location are separated, and endonuclease enzymes such as UvrC cut and excise the affected region. DNA polymerase fills the gap with new nucleotides, and then the DNA ligase enzyme seals the edges between the new and old DNA.
In prokaryotes, the NER complex consists of the three Uvr proteins, but in eukaryotes, more than a dozen proteins operate to regulate DNA repair. In humans, mutations in the NER pathway can cause diseases such as xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), which is associated with a 2000-fold increase in the incidence of skin cancer. Individuals suffering from XP are highly sensitive to UV exposure and can develop severe skin burns after just a few minutes of exposure to sunlight. Additionally, XP patients can show signs of premature aging and often develop neurological abnormalities. Without a properly working repair mechanism, DNA damage can accumulate and lead to abnormal cell death or potentially cancerous tumors.
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