Breast cancer genomes have revealed a novel form of mutation showers (kataegis) in which multiple same-strand substitutions at C:G pairs spaced one to several hundred nucleotides apart are clustered over kilobase-sized regions, often associated with sites of DNA rearrangement. We show kataegis can result from AID/APOBEC-catalysed cytidine deamination in the vicinity of DNA breaks, likely through action on single-stranded DNA exposed during resection. Cancer-like kataegis can be recapitulated by expression of AID/APOBEC family deaminases in yeast where it largely depends on uracil excision, which generates an abasic site for strand breakage. Localized kataegis can also be nucleated by an I-SceI-induced break. Genome-wide patterns of APOBEC3-catalyzed deamination in yeast reveal APOBEC3B and 3A as the deaminases whose mutational signatures are most similar to those of breast cancer kataegic mutations. Together with expression and functional assays, the results implicate APOBEC3B/A in breast cancer hypermutation and give insight into the mechanism of kataegis.
The genomes of cancer cells contain mutations that are not present in normal cells. Some of these prevent cells from repairing their DNA, while others give rise to tumours by causing cells to multiply uncontrollably. Moreover, some of the mutations in breast cancer cells occur in clusters—a phenomenon known as kataegis (from the Greek for ‘thunderstorm’).
Kataegic mutations occur almost exclusively at a cytosine preceded by a thymine. This suggests that a family of proteins called AID/APOBEC enzymes—which remove amine groups from cytosines—may be involved in generating these mutations. In this study, Taylor et al. confirm this possibility by showing that expressing individual members of the AID/APOBEC family of enzymes in yeast cells increases the mutation frequency and induces kataegis.
The kataegis triggered by the AID/APOBEC enzymes could be localised through the introduction of double-stranded breaks into the DNA: Taylor et al. suggest that this might happen because repairing the breaks exposes single-stranded DNA, which the AID/APOBEC enzymes then act upon. By comparing the mutations induced in the yeast cells with those observed in breast cancer cells, Taylor et al. identified APOBEC3B as the enzyme most likely to be responsible for kataegis in breast cancer (with APOBEC3A also a strong candidate in some cancers). Moreover, they showed that APOBEC3B was highly expressed in breast cancer cell lines, and that APOBEC3B and APOBEC3A can also cause DNA damage in human cells.
Taken together, the findings provide key insights into the mechanism by which kataegis arises, and identify two proteins likely to contribute to the mutations seen in breast cancer. Further work is now required to determine whether these enzymes also give rise to mutations in other forms of cancer.