Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Cancer Res. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 April 15.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3328627

Deficiency in mammalian histone H2B ubiquitin ligase Bre1 (Rnf20/Rnf40) leads to replication stress and chromosomal instability


Mammalian Bre1 complexes (BRE1A/B (RNF20/40) in humans and Bre1a/b (Rnf20/40) in mice) function similarly to their yeast homolog Bre1 as ubiquitin ligases in monoubiquitination of histone H2B. This ubiquitination facilitates methylation of histone H3 at K4 and K79, and accounts for the roles of Bre1 and its homologs in transcriptional regulation. Recent studies by others suggested that Bre1 acts as a tumor suppressor, augmenting expression of select tumor suppressor genes and suppressing select oncogenes. In this study we present an additional mechanism of tumor suppression by Bre1 through maintenance of genomic stability. We track the evolution of genomic instability in Bre1-deficient cells from replication-associated double-strand breaks (DSBs) to specific genomic rearrangements that explain a rapid increase in DNA content and trigger breakage-fusion-bridge cycles. We show that aberrant RNA-DNA structures (R-loops) constitute a significant source of DSBs in Bre1-deficient cells. Combined with a previously reported defect in homologous recombination, generation of R-loops is a likely initiator of replication stress and genomic instability in Bre1-deficient cells. We propose that genomic instability triggered by Bre1 deficiency may be an important early step that precedes acquisition of an invasive phenotype, as we find decreased levels of BRE1A/B and dimethylated H3K79 in testicular seminoma and in the premalignant lesion in situ carcinoma.

Keywords: H3K79, carcinogenesis, recombination, R-loops, seminoma


Histone modifications are central in regulating basic processes including transcription, gene silencing, differentiation, cell cycle progression and DNA repair (14). Amongst modifications of specific histone residues, much attention has focused in the last decade on a distinctive pathway, mediated by the E3 ligase Bre1, which monoubiquitinates histone H2B at lysine 123 (H2BK123) in budding yeast and at lysine 120 (H2BK120) in humans. H2B monoubiquitination plays an important role in regulation of transcription, being a prerequisite for normal levels of methylation of histone H3 residues K4 and K79 (58). In addition, studies in Saccharomyces showed that mutants deficient in H2B monoubiquitination are radiation sensitive and defective in recombinational repair, cell cycle checkpoints, gene silencing and meiosis (see (9) for review). Several recent publications on the mammalian homolog of Bre1 (RNF20/RNF40) suggest that mammalian Bre1 complex plays similar roles. We have reported that loss of Bre1 in mouse cells compromised homologous recombination (HR) repair, resulting in reduced recruitment of Rad51 to sites of radiation-induced double-strand breaks (DSBs) and increased sensitivity to ionizing radiation and DNA-crosslinking agents (10). A subsequent study by others concluded that human Bre1 (RNF20, or BRE1A) was involved in chromatin reorganization, facilitating HR protein access to damaged DNA (11). This role of Bre1 appears to be important for response to DSBs in general, as a recent study has shown that BRE1 (RNF20/40)-mediated H2B ubiquitination is induced in an ATM-dependent manner and is essential for timely repair of DSBs (12). These findings place Bre1 at the forefront of the DNA damage response, which serves as a barrier against cancer formation (13), and reduction in Bre1 levels would be expected to compromise stability of the genome.

Given that Bre1 affects multiple functions involved in genome maintenance it is plausible that Bre1 homologs have a major tumor suppressing role in higher organisms. Consistent with this, the RNF20 promoter has been found to be hypermethylated in breast cancers (14). Shema et al (14) showed that BRE1A restrained transcription of several proto-oncogenes, including c-myc and c-Fos, and augmented expression of tumor suppressor genes, notably p53, and further concluded that selective transcriptional regulation of proto-oncogenes and tumor suppressors constituted the basis for the tumor suppressing activity of BRE1 (RNF20). According to this hypothesis, one consequence of the loss of Bre1 would be an increased proliferation resulting from upregulation of growth-promoting oncogenes. However, this conclusion seems to be at odds with our current observation of impaired growth upon depletion of Bre1 (RNF20/40). Also, the transcriptional regulation of select oncogenes and tumor suppressors does not seem to be universal across species, as in our study we detect no reduction of p53 mRNA levels after knockdown of Bre1 (Rnf20 and/or Rnf40) in mouse cells. Thus, additional mechanisms seem to be at play in Bre1-depleted cells driving their transition to a malignant phenotype.

Here, we show that Bre1 acts as an important suppressor of genomic instability. We used RNAi to deplete Bre1 from mouse cells and then followed the evolution of genomic instability in Bre1-deficient cells from early replication stress to specific genomic rearrangements, which in turn triggered breakage-fusion-bridge cycles, known to accelerate genomic instability. We demonstrate that R-loops, the RNA-DNA hybrids that result from the extended pairing of nascent mRNA with the DNA template behind the elongating RNA polymerase II, are a significant contributor to the genomic instability phenotype in the Bre1-depleted cells. While Bre1 homologs are highly expressed in mouse and human testis, we find reduced BRE1A and BRE1B levels in testicular cancer and the non-malignant lesion in situ carcinoma. Collectively, our data demonstrate that Bre1 deficiency promotes genomic instability, which may be an early step in carcinogenesis preceding the acquisition of an invasive phenotype.


Cell lines

Mouse fibrosarcoma RIF-1 cells were obtained from Dr. M. J. Dorie (J. M. Brown laboratory, Stanford University) (15) and mouse embryonic stem (MES) cells were obtained from Dr. J. P. Murnane (University of California San Francisco) (16) in 2005. As the cell lines were obtained directly from the source of origin the authenticity of cell lines was not tested.

RNA interference

For downregulation of Bre1a and Bre1b by RNAi we used a lentiviral RNAi system based on the BLOCK-iT system (Invitrogen) modified by Dr. E. Campeau (17).

Quantitative RT-PCR

Quantitative RT-PCR analysis was performed as described in (18). Human or mouse TBP was used for normalization of cDNA input. The amplification was specific as judged by melting temperature analysis. The experiments were performed in triplicate and repeated at least twice. Primer sequences are available upon request.

Visualization of micronuclei and anaphase bridges

The assay was performed as described in (19). In some cases Fig.2B, S3B and S3C), cytochalasin B was not added to allow better visualization of anaphase bridges.

Fig. 2
Evidence for ongoing genomic instability in Bre1-depleted cells

Rad51 foci detection

The assay was performed as described in (10).

RNase H1 transfection

GFP-RNase H1 plasmid was obtained from Dr. Olivier Sordet and transfection performed using procedures similar to described in (20) and in Supplemental Information.

More detailed Materials and Methods can be found in Supplemental Information.


Bre1a/Bre1b-depletion impairs cell growth

To investigate the effects of loss of function of the Bre1a/Bre1b complex in mouse cells we created lentivirus-based shRNA constructs targeting either of the two subunits of the complex. As a control, we used an shRNA construct targeting GFP. Expression of Bre1a and Bre1b shRNAs in mouse fibrosarcoma RIF-1 cells resulted in a significant reduction of corresponding mRNA transcript levels after seven days of antibiotic selection, as shown by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) (Fig. 1A). Protein levels of Bre1a and Bre1b were also reduced (Fig. 1B). Importantly, the levels of Bre1b protein were decreased in the knockdown of Bre1a (Fig. 1B, top panel), while the levels of Bre1b mRNA were not affected by the knockdown of Bre1a (Fig. 1A), suggesting that stability of Bre1b depends on the formation of Bre1a/Bre1b heterodimer.

Fig. 1
Depletion of Bre1a or Bre1b impairs cell growth

In agreement with previous studies (21), we show that downregulation of either Bre1a or Bre1b leads to reduction in ubiquitination of H2B (Fig. 1C) and subsequent reduction of uH2B-dependent methylation of H3K79 and H3K4 (Fig. 1B). The reduction in H3K4me3 was evident in all knockdowns, but was substantially less pronounced than the reduction in H3K79me2 (Fig. 1B), which closely followed the reduction in Bre1a or Bre1b levels in all experiments.

Knockdown of Bre1a or Bre1b significantly impaired cell growth in different mouse cell types including RIF-1, C3H 10T1/2 and MES cells (Fig. 1D and Fig. S1A), while cells grew well after knockdown of either GFP, or tumor suppressor Rb (Fig. S1A). In order to monitor the effects of disruption of the Bre1a/Bre1b complex over time, we created RIF-1-derived cell lines, in which the knockdown of Bre1a or Bre1b could be initiated by addition of doxycycline. A doxycycline-inducible GFP shRNA system was used as a control. A detailed description of the Bre1 shRNA-inducible system is presented in the Supplemental Materials and Methods and in Fig. S1B and S1C. Note that the Bre1b shRNA inducible cell line has a slightly reduced level of Bre1b even in the absence of doxycycline compared to the control cell line with GFP shRNA (Fig. S1C, lanes 1 and 4, respectively), indicating that the doxycycline-inducible system is leaky and a partial knockdown of Bre1b occurs even when doxycycline is not present. Similarly to cells with the constitutive Bre1b knockdown (Fig. 1B), the inducible Bre1b shRNA cell line demonstrated significant reduction in growth rate upon addition of doxycycline (Fig. 1E, panel a). Consistent with the leaky phenotype, the growth rate of the inducible Bre1b shRNA cells was slightly reduced even in the absence of doxycycline when compared to the control inducible GFP shRNA cell line (Fig. 1E). We were able to obtain a more tightly regulated cell line by modifying stringencies of antibiotics’ selection (shBre1b2 in Fig. 2A), which corrected the problem of reduced cell growth in the absence of doxycycline. The availability of the leaky cell line shBre1b1 with partial knockdown of Bre1b gave us an advantage to investigate weaker and/or long-term effects of Bre1b depletion (shown further).

Apoptosis contributes to growth impairment in Bre1-depleted cells

To explain the reduction in growth rate observed in the Bre1-deficient cells we investigated the possibility of increased apoptosis. Apoptosis frequencies after Bre1b knockdown were increased by up to five-fold compared to uninduced cells, and to both induced control and uninduced control cells (Fig. 1E (panel b) and Fig. S2A). Consistent with the leaky phenotype, low level of apoptosis was present in the shBre1b1 cells even in the absence of doxycycline (Fig. 1E, panel b). Apoptosis also increased after depletion of Bre1 in MES cells (Fig. S2B). We conclude that the function of Bre1 is critical for homeostasis and that apoptosis contributes to the reduced growth phenotype in cell cultures with low levels of Bre1a and Bre1b.

Bre1 loss compromises genomic integrity

Reduction in growth rate and increased apoptosis also closely correlated with increased frequencies of micronuclei (MN) (Fig. 1E, F) supporting the conclusion that the function of the Bre1a/Bre1b complex is essential for maintenance of DNA integrity. Importantly, we observed a tight correlation between H2B ubiquitination and MN levels (Fig. S3A and S3B).

Progressive genomic instability in Bre1-deficient cells

While significant loss of Bre1 was catastrophic to the cells and lead to cessation of proliferation and cell death (Fig. 1E), more subtle changes in Bre1b expression due to the partial knockdown in the uninduced shBre1b1 cell line allowed cells to proliferate and manifest dramatic genomic instability associated with Bre1 deficiency after longer culture periods. When cultured for 3 weeks and longer under conditions of partial knockdown (Fig. 2A), the shBre1b1 cells displayed MN frequencies comparable to that observed on day 5 after complete Bre1b knockdown in the shBre1b2 cells (Fig. 2B). Additionally, partial knockdown shBre1b1 cells at higher passages were characterized by the appearance of anaphase bridges (Fig. 2C and Fig.S3C), many of which contained telomere signal(s) (Fig. 2C), and by an increased DNA content (Fig. S4). To differentiate between fusions resulting from loss of telomere end protection (22, 23) and fusions resulting from DSBs (24, 25), we performed telomere FISH analysis on metaphase chromosomes from the Bre1-deficient and control cell lines. Since no telomere signal was observed interstitially at fusion points, chromosome analysis provided no evidence for the loss of telomere end capping function, suggesting that anaphase bridges resulted from DSBs.

We also found that loss of Bre1 led to the formation of three main types of chromosome aberrations, providing insight into mechanisms underlying the formation of telomere-positive anaphase bridges and to the increased DNA content in the Bre1-knockdown cells. The chromosome aberrations predominantly found in the Bre1-knockdown cells were Robertsonian-like translocations with amplified centromeric heterochromatin (RTCH) (Fig. 2D), aberrations involving large regions of amplified centromeric heterochromatin at pericentric and interstitial locations (ACH), and chromatid-type aberrations (CA) (Fig. 2E, F), aberrations associated with instability. The amplified regions of centromeric heterochromatin observed in the metaphase chromosomes of the Bre1-knockdown cell line were sometimes involved in dicentric chromosomes, which lead to the generation of anaphase bridges. These bridges contained telomere signals not associated with any telomere end protection defect and subsequent chromosomal end fusions, but rather telomeres associated with chromosomes pulled into the nucleoplasmic tube of an anaphase bridge, providing explanation for the presence of telomere signals within the anaphase bridges of the Bre1-knockdown cell line.

The chromosomal instability phenotype initiated by partial Bre1b knockdown (shBre1b1 cells grown without doxycycline) for three weeks and longer was more dramatic than the one initiated by complete short-term knockdown of Bre1b at early passage (Fig. 2E and F). Additionally, cells at higher passages accumulated chromatid-type aberrations, which were not present in the lower passage cells, as well as very complex aberrations, which appeared to result from disruption/amplification/decompaction of centromeric heterochromatin (Fig. 2E and F).

Bre1 deficiency leads to replication stress

To elucidate how loss of Bre1 contributes to increased DSBs and genomic rearrangements, we measured γH2AX levels after Bre1 knockdown. Consistent with previous reports (26, 27), we found two distinct subpopulations of cells with elevated γH2AX. In the first, an increase in γH2AX signal was detected as a shift of the main cell population in the FACS profile (Fig. 3A) that could be accounted for by both an increase in the intensity of γH2AX foci and/or in the number of cells with γH2AX foci at sites of DSBs (Fig. 3B, 3C and 3D (panels a and b)). The other population of cells had dramatically elevated pan-nuclear staining of γH2AX (Fig. 3D (panel c)), which identified apoptotic or pre-apoptotic cells (26, 27). FACS analysis showed that while γH2AX signal (DSBs) was elevated throughout the cell cycle (Fig. 3A), cells with pan-nuclear staining of γH2AX (apoptosis) were restricted to S-phase cells after knockdown of Bre1 (Fig. 3E). To investigate how Bre1-deficient cells dealt with replication stress we treated cells with 2mM hydroxyurea (HU), which stalls replication forks by inhibiting ribonucleotide reductase essential for the synthesis of DNA precursors. A prolonged (24 hr) treatment with 2 mM HU leads to replication fork collapse, which requires HR for repair of resulting DSBs (28). We found that prolonged treatment of control cells with 2mM HU led to a distribution of γH2AX signal reported previously (29), with γH2AX-positive cells in three distinct clusters corresponding to G1, S, and G2/M cells (Fig. 3F). Consistent with increased apoptosis during replication, we also found that loss of Bre1 resulted in depletion of cells primarily from the cluster corresponding to the γH2AX-positive S-phase cells (Fig. 3F). Replication stress and occurrence of chromatid aberrations are consistent with defective homologous recombination in Bre1-depleted cells we reported previously, and we show that spontaneous Rad51 foci formation was significantly affected by loss of Bre1 (Fig. S4C).

Fig. 3
Bre1 knockdown leads to increase in double-strand breaks and to replication stress

Co-transcriptional formation of R-loops contributes to replication stress in Bre1-depleted cells

To explore additional factors contributing to DSB formation in Bre1-deficient cells we performed gene expression analysis on Bre1a and Bre1b knockdown cells. Since growth-affecting changes were observed after longer times of Bre1 knockdown (Fig. 1D), we performed microarray analysis after 7 days of RNAi. Consistent with both subunits of Bre1 complex being required for the H2B ubiquitination, we observed a high correlation between expression profiles in the Bre1a and Bre1b knockdowns (Fig. S5). Despite the general role of Bre1 in transcriptional regulation, loss of Bre1 downregulated a distinct set of genes and upregulated another without affecting majority of genes (Tables S1 and S2). Further analysis revealed that the group of genes upregulated after Bre1 knockdown was dramatically enriched for genes involved in RNA processing/splicing, showing a response typical of the one to co-transcriptional formation of recombinogenic RNA-DNA hybrids (R-loops) (Fig. 4A). R-loops often arise during perturbed mRNA processing as a result of the extended pairing of nascent messenger RNA (mRNA) with the transcribed DNA strand behind the elongating Pol II, creating DSBs and leading to increased recombination and genomic instability (30, 31). In a genome-wide siRNA screen for genes whose deregulation leads to elevated levels of γH2AX (32), the mRNA processing module represented the most significantly enriched category of genes, suggesting that abnormal mRNA processing was the most common and direct source of genomic instability. To determine if R-loop formation contributed to increased formation of DSBs in Bre1-deficient cells, we tested whether overexpression of RNase H1, which degrades RNA in R-loops, would reduce levels of γ-H2AX. Fig. 4B shows that overexpression of RNase H1 decreased the number of cells with γ-H2AX foci in the Bre1-depleted cells, while it did not have an effect on cells in which Bre1 RNAi was not induced. In addition, RNase H1 expression reduced the average number of γ-H2AX foci per cell (Fig. 4C, D). These data suggest a mechanism for the generation of DSBs through the R-loop formation in the Bre1-depleted cells.

Fig. 4
Defect in mRNA processing contributes to double-strand break formation in Bre1-depleted cells

We also found that the gene subset upregulated after depletion of Bre1 was strongly enriched for histone genes from the compact chromatin cluster on 13qA3.1 (p<0.0001) (Table S3). Normally, replication-dependent histone mRNAs do not have poly(A) tails, but since we relied on poly(A)-dependent amplification of mRNA for hybridization to our microarray chip, overrepresentation of histone genes from the 13qA3.1 cluster is a compelling evidence for the presence of mRNA that has been polyadenylated. These data confirm the previous finding by Pirngruber et al (33) showing that BRE1(RNF20/40)-dependent H2Bub1 acts as a marker for correct recognition of the histone mRNA 3’-end cleavage site. Due to the massive synthesis of histones during replication, defective processing of replication-associated histone mRNA in BRE1(RNF20/40)-deficient cells may be the main contributor to the formation of DSBs and hence replication stress.

BRE1A/B and H3K79me2 levels are lower in human seminoma than in normal testis

We hypothesized that tissues with high expression of Bre1 homologs would depend on the function of the complex for maintenance of genomic integrity. Western blot analysis showed that among various mouse organs including brain, heart, kidney, liver, lung, muscle, skin, testis, spleen, and bladder, expression of Bre1b was highest in testis and spleen (Fig. 5A), suggesting that the Bre1a/Bre1b complex may play essential roles in these organs. We observed strong Bre1b staining in spermatogonia (Fig. 5B, left panel). We also found a strong signal for H3K79me2 and H3K4me3, the two modifications affected by ubiquitination of H2B. H3K79me2 was highest in middle meiosis (Fig. 5B), while H3K4me3 was strongest at the beginning and in the middle of meiosis (Fig. 5B), consistent with the roles these modifications play during yeast meiosis (3436). Importantly, the staining for total histone H3 was uniform throughout the sections (Fig. 5B).

Fig. 5
Loss of BRE1A/B is associated with development of seminoma

Having demonstrated the importance of Bre1 homologs to maintenance of genomic stability, we hypothesized that suboptimal expression of Bre1 homologs in testis might be associated with testicular cancer. To test this supposition, we analyzed BRE1A (RNF20) and BRE1B (RNF40) expression data available from public databases (37, 38) and found significantly lower levels of BRE1A mRNA in human seminoma compared to normal testicular tissue (Fig. S6). Seminoma is a type of testicular germ cell cancer that is the most common solid tumor in otherwise healthy men aged 15–35 years. It is widely accepted that seminoma arises from the precursor lesion carcinoma in situ (CIS, also known as intratubular germ cell neoplasia) and can grow rapidly and metastasize (39). Seminomas are characterized by high levels of genome instability and gains of chromosome 12p, which are not present in CIS. Although formerly often lethal, seminoma is highly sensitive to ionizing radiation therapy and chemotherapy and most are now cured.

To assess BRE1A/B protein levels we stained tissue microarrays containing tissue sections from normal testis and seminoma. Levels of both BRE1B protein and BRE1A/B-dependent dimethylation of H3K79 and trimethylation of H3K4 were significantly lower in seminoma compared to normal tissue (Fig. 5C). Further analysis of publicly available gene expression arrays (37, 38) demonstrated that among different testicular cancers seminoma displayed the lowest levels of BRE1A (Fig. S6), and by staining the testis tissue microarrays we found that amongst testicular cancers, H3K79me2 was also lowest in seminoma (Fig. 5D, S7 and Table S4). Importantly, staining of BRE1A and H3K79me2 in CIS was also lower than in normal tissue from the same patients (Fig. 5E), suggesting that deficiency in BRE1A/B and in methylation of H3K4 and H3K79 occurs before acquisition of an invasive phenotype.


We demonstrate that Bre1 (human BRE1A/B (RNF20/40) and mouse Bre1a/b (Rnf20/40)) acts as an important suppressor of chromosomal instability (CIN). This finding complements the previously suggested mechanism for Bre1 tumor suppression through transcriptional regulation of select oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes (14). The types of chromosomal aberrations we observed after knockdown of Bre1 indicated that a defect in homologous recombination (HR) contributes to CIN in the Bre1-deficient cells (40, 41). This conclusion is consistent with our previous observation that reduced monoubiquitination of H2B in Saccharomyces bre1null mutants and in mouse cells leads to defective recombinational repair of double-strand breaks (DSBs) (10, 42). We show that R-loops, the RNA-DNA hybrid structures usually formed behind elongating RNA polymerase II when mRNA processing is disturbed (3032), constitute a significant source of DSBs in Bre1-deficient cells. Overall, our data support a model in which reduction in Bre1-dependent ubiquitination of histone H2B increases genomic instability through increased generation of DSBs resulting from a defect in correct processing of canonical histone mRNA and through inhibition of HR needed for DSB resolution (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6
A model depicting sources of genomic instability in Bre1-deficient cells

It should be noted that while we interpret the observed Bre1 knockdown phenotype as arising from an impact on the well-known role of Bre1 in H2B ubiquitination, it is formally possible that additional targets for the Bre1 ubiquitin ligase exist, which could contribute to the knockdown phenotype. Testing this with an H2B K120 substitution mutant is not straightforward in mammals, because their genomes contain at least 17 H2B genes (43). However studies using overexpressed ectopic H2BK120R mutant gene in cells with wild-type chromosomal copies of H2B have shown that effects of overexpression of H2BK120R mimic those of loss of BRE1, including the effect on the formation of γH2AX foci, which we used in our study to detect DSBs (11, 12). Also, in Saccharomyces, where chromosomal copies of the H2B gene number only two and can be deleted, H2BK123R mutants do mimic the bre1 deletion phenotype (reviewed in (9)), implying that the phenotypes are likely to be conferred through effects on the H2B target. Questions remain, however, as to whether the phenotypes we observed after loss of Bre1 are mediated via the well-known impact of H2B ubiquitination on methylation of histone H3, and specifically whether H3K4me3 and or H3K79me2 are involved. Detailed investigation of the role that H3K4 methylation plays in different Bre1 phenotypes is hampered by the fact that there are many SET1 homologues in mammals, some of which may not be uH2B-dependent (reviewed in (9)). Also, knocking down the H3K79 methyltransferase Dot1 would completely eliminate methylation of H3K79, while loss of Bre1-mediated H2B ubiquitination only eliminates the higher states of methylation of H3K79, so additional phenotypes may be conferred by the Dot1 knockdown beyond those mediated by the impact of uH2B on H3K79. Although the effects of Dot1 knockdown in mice (44, 45) paralleled the impaired cell growth, increased ploidy and centromeric abnormalities we observed after Bre1 knockdown, specific clarification of these issues requires further study.

A crucial unresolved question in cancer biology is whether CIN represents an early event and is therefore a driving force of carcinogenesis. Our results support models in which CIN drives tumorigenesis rather than being its consequence. We provide a comprehensive demonstration of a stepwise accumulation of chromosomal changes that start with downregulation of Bre1. Consistent with the CIN model, we also show that BRE1A/B deficiency accompanies early steps of testicular cancer development.

Correct processing of replication-associated histone mRNA is particularly relevant in connection to testicular carcinogenesis. In the testis a massive synthesis of histone variants accompanies dramatic reorganization of the genome, during which the majority of the histones are replaced by transition proteins and protamines. Lack of Bre1 leading to abnormal presence of polyadenylated histone mRNAs, which are not rapidly degraded at the end of S-phase, could interfere with proper incorporation of the variant histones into chromatin, and lead to testicular dysgenesis. We demonstrated that low levels of BRE1A and BRE1B, and low H3K79me2 are found in intratubular cell neoplasia (CIS), as well as in seminomas. Seminomas show chromosomal changes similar to those found in CIS and therefore are considered a default pathway from the CIS precursor lesion to invasive testicular germ cell tumors (TGCT) (39). Like all TGCTs, seminomas are characterized by high levels of CIN and aneuploidy, and a gain of chromosome 12p (46). Gain of 12p is not present in CIS, and so it is believed that overexpression of gene(s) on 12p is pertinent to invasive growth. Thus, we can speculate that genomic instability initiated by the abnormal downregulation of BRE1A/BRE1B function may facilitate gain of 12p and thus constitute one possible route to seminoma. Seminomas recapitulate the undifferentiated and pluripotent primordial germ cell (PGC) phenotype, and are thought to arise when a block in maturation of PGCs prevents them from forming spermatogonia. Downregulation of BRE1A/BRE1B may be associated with such a maturation block (39), and thus may lead to infertility. In fact, men from families with fertility problems are known to have an elevated risk of testicular cancers, especially seminoma (4749). Hence, deficiency in BRE1A/B may be among etiological factors in common for both infertility and testicular cancer. In addition, mutation of BRE1 (RNF20) has been found among other CIN genes mutated in colorectal cancers (50) suggestive of a more general role of Bre1 in CIN.

In conclusion, we propose that the mammalian homologs of the yeast BRE1 gene serve as tumor suppressors by preventing replication stress and chromosomal instability that arise from DSBs associated with incorrect processing of replication-associated histone mRNAs and inefficient HR. In addition to clarifying basic cellular mechanisms, the identification of Bre1 as a CIN gene may have specific relevance for estimation of risk and diagnosis of testicular cancer.

Supplementary Material


We are grateful to Xin Huang (University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine), Elena Seraia (Stanford Functional Genomics Facility), and Janos Demeter (Stanford Microarray Database) for help with image processing and microarray analysis. The work was supported by grant CA67166 awarded to JMB by the National Cancer Institute.


1. Osley MA, Fleming AB, Kao CF. Histone ubiquitylation and the regulation of transcription. Results and problems in cell differentiation. 2006;41:47–75. [PubMed]
2. Shilatifard A. Chromatin modifications by methylation and ubiquitination: implications in the regulation of gene expression. Annual review of biochemistry. 2006;75:243–269. [PubMed]
3. Shilatifard A. Molecular implementation and physiological roles for histone H3 lysine 4 (H3K4) methylation. Current opinion in cell biology. 2008;20(3):341–348. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
4. Escargueil AE, Soares DG, Salvador M, Larsen AK, Henriques JA. What histone code for DNA repair? Mutation research. 2008;658(3):259–270. [PubMed]
5. Sun ZW, Allis CD. Ubiquitination of histone H2B regulates H3 methylation and gene silencing in yeast. Nature. 2002;418(6893):104–108. [PubMed]
6. Ng HH, Xu RM, Zhang Y, Struhl K. Ubiquitination of histone H2B by Rad6 is required for efficient Dot1-mediated methylation of histone H3 lysine 79. J Biol Chem. 2002;277(38):34655–34657. [PubMed]
7. Briggs SD, et al. Gene silencing: trans-histone regulatory pathway in chromatin. Nature. 2002;418(6897):498. [PubMed]
8. Dover J, et al. Methylation of histone H3 by COMPASS requires ubiquitination of histone H2B by Rad6. J Biol Chem. 2002;277(32):28368–28371. [PubMed]
9. Game JC, Chernikova SB. The role of RAD6 in recombinational repair, checkpoints and meiosis via histone modification. DNA repair. 2009;8(4):470–482. [PubMed]
10. Chernikova SB, Dorth JA, Razorenova OV, Game JC, Brown JM. (Deficiency in Bre1 Impairs Homologous Recombination Repair and Cell Cycle Checkpoint Response to Radiation Damage in Mammalian Cells. Radiation research. 174(5) [PMC free article] [PubMed]
11. Nakamura K, et al. Regulation of homologous recombination by RNF20-dependent H2B ubiquitination. Molecular cell. 41(5):515–528. [PubMed]
12. Moyal L, et al. Requirement of ATM-dependent monoubiquitylation of histone H2B for timely repair of DNA double-strand breaks. Molecular cell. 41(5):529–542. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
13. Halazonetis TD, Gorgoulis VG, Bartek J. An oncogene-induced DNA damage model for cancer development. Science (New York, N.Y. 2008;319(5868):1352–1355. [PubMed]
14. Shema E, et al. The histone H2B-specific ubiquitin ligase RNF20/hBRE1 acts as a putative tumor suppressor through selective regulation of gene expression. Genes & development. 2008;22(19):2664–2676. [PubMed]
15. Twentyman PR, et al. A new mouse tumor model system (RIF-1) for comparison of end-point studies. J. Natl. Cancer Inst. 1980;64(3):595–604. [PubMed]
16. Pedram M, et al. Telomere position effect and silencing of transgenes near telomeres in the mouse. Molecular and cellular biology. 2006;26(5):1865–1878. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
17. Campeau E, et al. A versatile viral system for expression and depletion of proteins in mammalian cells. PloS one. 2009;4(8):e6529. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
18. Razorenova OV, et al. VHL loss in renal cell carcinoma leads to up-regulation of CUB domain-containing protein 1 to stimulate PKC{delta}-driven migration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [PubMed]
19. Chernikova SB, Wells RL, Elkind MM. Wortmannin sensitizes mammalian cells to radiation by inhibiting the DNA-dependent protein kinase-mediated rejoining of double-strand breaks. Radiation research. 1999;151(2):159–166. [PubMed]
20. Sordet O, et al. Ataxia telangiectasia mutated activation by transcription- and topoisomerase I-induced DNA double-strand breaks. EMBO reports. 2009;10(8):887–893. [PubMed]
21. Kim J, et al. RAD6-Mediated transcription-coupled H2B ubiquitylation directly stimulates H3K4 methylation in human cells. Cell. 2009;137(3):459–471. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
22. Crabbe L, Jauch A, Naeger CM, Holtgreve-Grez H, Karlseder J. Telomere dysfunction as a cause of genomic instability in Werner syndrome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2007;104(7):2205–2210. [PubMed]
23. van Steensel B, Smogorzewska A, de Lange T. TRF2 protects human telomeres from end-to-end fusions. Cell. 1998;92(3):401–413. [PubMed]
24. Bailey SM, et al. DNA double-strand break repair proteins are required to cap the ends of mammalian chromosomes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 1999;96(26):14899–14904. [PubMed]
25. Bailey SM, Cornforth MN, Kurimasa A, Chen DJ, Goodwin EH. Strand-specific postreplicative processing of mammalian telomeres. Science (New York, N.Y. 2001;293(5539):2462–2465. [PubMed]
26. de Feraudy S, Revet I, Bezrookove V, Feeney L, Cleaver JE. A minority of foci or pan-nuclear apoptotic staining of gammaH2AX in the S phase after UV damage contain DNA double-strand breaks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 107(15):6870–6875. [PubMed]
27. Kurose A, et al. Effects of hydroxyurea and aphidicolin on phosphorylation of ataxia telangiectasia mutated on Ser 1981 and histone H2AX on Ser 139 in relation to cell cycle phase and induction of apoptosis. Cytometry A. 2006;69(4):212–221. [PubMed]
28. Petermann E, Orta ML, Issaeva N, Schultz N, Helleday T. Hydroxyurea-stalled replication forks become progressively inactivated and require two different RAD51-mediated pathways for restart and repair. Molecular cell. 37(4):492–502. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
29. de Feraudy S, et al. Pol eta is required for DNA replication during nucleotide deprivation by hydroxyurea. Oncogene. 2007;26(39):5713–5721. [PubMed]
30. Li X, Manley JL. Cotranscriptional processes and their influence on genome stability. Genes & development. 2006;20(14):1838–1847. [PubMed]
31. Aguilera A, Gomez-Gonzalez B. Genome instability: a mechanistic view of its causes and consequences. Nat Rev Genet. 2008;9(3):204–217. [PubMed]
32. Paulsen RD, et al. A genome-wide siRNA screen reveals diverse cellular processes and pathways that mediate genome stability. Molecular cell. 2009;35(2):228–239. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
33. Pirngruber J, et al. CDK9 directs H2B monoubiquitination and controls replication-dependent histone mRNA 3'-end processing. EMBO reports. 2009;10(8):894–900. [PubMed]
34. San-Segundo PA, Roeder GS. Role for the silencing protein Dot1 in meiotic checkpoint control. Molecular biology of the cell. 2000;11(10):3601–3615. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
35. Sollier J, et al. Set1 is required for meiotic S-phase onset, double-strand break formation and middle gene expression. The EMBO journal. 2004;23(9):1957–1967. [PubMed]
36. Yamashita K, Shinohara M, Shinohara A. Rad6-Bre1-mediated histone H2B ubiquitylation modulates the formation of double-strand breaks during meiosis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2004;101(31):11380–11385. [PubMed]
37. Korkola JE, et al. Down-regulation of stem cell genes, including those in a 200-kb gene cluster at 12p13.31, is associated with in vivo differentiation of human male germ cell tumors. Cancer research. 2006;66(2):820–827. [PubMed]
38. Sperger JM, et al. Gene expression patterns in human embryonic stem cells and human pluripotent germ cell tumors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2003;100(23):13350–13355. [PubMed]
39. Looijenga LH, Gillis AJ, Stoop HJ, Hersmus R, Oosterhuis JW. Chromosomes and expression in human testicular germ-cell tumors: insight into their cell of origin and pathogenesis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2007;1120:187–214. [PubMed]
40. Tinline-Purvis H, et al. Failed gene conversion leads to extensive end processing and chromosomal rearrangements in fission yeast. The EMBO journal. 2009;28(21):3400–3412. [PubMed]
41. Nakamura K, et al. Rad51 suppresses gross chromosomal rearrangement at centromere in Schizosaccharomyces pombe. The EMBO journal. 2008;27(22):3036–3046. [PubMed]
42. Game JC, Williamson MS, Spicakova T, Brown JM. The RAD6/BRE1 histone modification pathway in Saccharomyces confers radiation resistance through a RAD51-dependent process that is independent of RAD18. Genetics. 2006;173(4):1951–1968. [PubMed]
43. Marzluff WF, Gongidi P, Woods KR, Jin J, Maltais LJ. The human and mouse replication-dependent histone genes. Genomics. 2002;80(5):487–498. [PubMed]
44. Jones B, et al. The histone H3K79 methyltransferase Dot1L is essential for mammalian development and heterochromatin structure. PLoS Genet. 2008;4(9):e1000190. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
45. Barry ER, et al. ES cell cycle progression and differentiation require the action of the histone methyltransferase Dot1L. Stem Cells. 2009;27(7):1538–1547. [PubMed]
46. Looijenga LH, Oosterhuis JW. Pathobiology of testicular germ cell tumors: views and news. Analytical and quantitative cytology and histology / the International Academy of Cytology [and] American Society of Cytology. 2002;24(5):263–279. [PubMed]
47. Walsh TJ, Croughan MS, Schembri M, Chan JM, Turek PJ. Increased risk of testicular germ cell cancer among infertile men. Archives of internal medicine. 2009;169(4):351–356. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
48. Jacobsen R, et al. Risk of testicular cancer in men with abnormal semen characteristics: cohort study. BMJ (Clinical research ed. 2000;321(7264):789–792. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
49. Raman JD, Nobert CF, Goldstein M. Increased incidence of testicular cancer in men presenting with infertility and abnormal semen analysis. The Journal of urology. 2005;174(5):1819–1822. discussion 1822. [PubMed]
50. Barber TD, et al. Chromatid cohesion defects may underlie chromosome instability in human colorectal cancers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2008;105(9):3443–3448. [PubMed]