Defining mechanisms that regulate the alternative lengthening of telomeres
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Telomeres are repetitive DNA sequences found at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes that help maintain genome stability. Telomeres shorten every time a cell divides, eventually inducing replicative senescence. To gain replicative immortality cancer cells establish mechanisms to maintain telomere length over many cell divisions. Around 10% of cancers do this using a recombination-based pathway called the Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres (ALT). ALT resembles a specific type of homology-directed repair called break-induced replication (BIR). Through this body of work, we aimed to better understand both the genetics underlying ALT positive cancers and the mechanistic basis of ALT. ALT positive cancers frequently carry loss of function mutations in the genes for ATRX/DAXX, which function to regulate heterochromatin. Recently, we identified a novel chromosomal fusion event in ALT positive osteosarcoma causing defects in DAXX function. Additionally, we identified several osteosarcoma tumors with wild-type ATRX/DAXX that had abnormalities in SLX4IP or SMARCAL1, proteins recently shown to regulate the ALT pathway. These data suggest that a more thorough understanding of the ALT mechanism may reveal additional factors that are defective in ALT positive tumors. Building on this, we aimed to further define the mechanism of ALT by investigating the DNA translocase RAD54 in the ALT pathway. During BIR, a broken DNA strand invades a homologous template, forming a structure called a displacement loop (D-loop) where a strand of template DNA is displaced to allow base pairing between the broken DNA strand and the homologous template. The D-loop recruits DNA polymerases, leading to extension and repair of the broken DNA strand. RAD54 is known to regulate both the formation and resolution of D-loops. In this work, we found that RAD54 promotes elongation at ALT telomeres by mediating branch migration and dissolution of the D-loop. D-loops formed at ALT telomeres must be resolved before mitosis to prevent the formation of ultra-fine anaphase bridges. These data demonstrate that by mediating D-loop migration RAD54 plays an important role in both promoting telomere elongation and maintaining genome stability in ALT cells. Together this body of work represents advances in defining both the genetic and mechanistic basis of ALT.