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Fran Supek is the first author of the study published today in Cell. Supek developed this work while he was working with Ben Lehner at CRG (Photo: M Minocri, IRB Barcelona).

Errors made by ‘DNA spellchecker’ revealed as important cause of cancer

A study developed by Fran Supek (currently a group leader at IRB Barcelona at the Barcelona Science Park) and Ben Lehner at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona reveal that many mutations in human cancers are caused by mistakes made by a repair mechanism or ‘DNA spellchecker’ rather than the actual damage to DNA caused by the environment. High levels of alcohol, sunlight, and tobacco consumption increase the rate at which this happens, resulting in more mutations in the most important parts of our genomes.


Cancer is mostly caused by changes in the DNA of our cells that occur during our lifetime rather than those that we inherit from our parents. Identifying the causes of these ‘mutations’ is a difficult challenge because many processes can result in an identical DNA sequence change in a genome. A study developed by Fran Supek and Ben Lehner have now identified one of the important mechanisms that causes these mutations as mistakes made by a DNA ‘spellchecker’ that repairs damage in our genomes.

The researchers identified this process by studying clusters of mutations in more than a thousand tumor genomes, meaning that they hunted for mutations that occur close together in the same part of the genome, such that this is highly unlikely to have happened by chance. The goal was to get a better picture of the mutagenic factors that affect human cells and that might cause cancer.

 “Clustered mutations are likely to be generated at the same moment in time, so by looking at several neighboring mutations at once, we can have a better understanding of what has damaged the DNA,” says Fran Supek, first author of the study and currently group leader and ‘Ramon y Cajal’ fellow at IRB Barcelona. “Like when police study a pattern of recurrent crimes in order to find a serial killer, here we show that focusing on patterns of clustered mutations and using a large number of cancer genomes, we can identify the culprits that cause mutations in tumors,” he explains.

New evidence links high levels of alcohol, sunlight, and smoking to mutations

By studying clusters, the scientists identified nine mutational signatures that were evident in more than 1,000 genomes of tumors from various organs. Their results,  ublished in Cell on 27th July, revealed new major mutation-causing processes, including an unusual case of DNA repair which should normally safeguard the genome from damage, but is sometimes subverted and starts introducing clustered mutations.

DNA repair is extremely important because our bodies are constantly renewing their cells which involves copying more than 2 meters of DNA and errors inevitably get introduced. Moreover, mutagens in the environment like sunlight and tobacco smoke damage DNA and this damage has to be corrected.  DNA repair is normally exquisitely accurate, but some types of damage can only be corrected using lower-fidelity ‘spellcheckers’. It is the mistakes made by one of these less accurate spellcheckers that cause many of the mutations seen in different types of tumors, including liver, colon, stomach, esophagus and lung cancer. 

Alcohol is a well-known contributor to many types of cancer, but the reasons for this are surprisingly unclear. Supek and Lehner’s work suggests that one effect of alcohol, when consumed in large amounts, is to increase the use of low-fidelity DNA repair, thereby increasing the mutation rate in the most important regions of the genome. This finding provides a first glimpse into one mechanism by which alcohol may contribute to cancer risk.   High exposure to sunlight seems to have a similar consequence.

As another part of the study scientists also found that cigarette smoking is associated with several different kinds of clustered mutations, further revealing the details of how smoking results in horrific damage to our DNA.

► More information: Web de lIRB Barcelona [+]

► Reference article: 
Supek, Fran and Lehner, Ben. “Clustered mutation signatures reveal that error-prone DNA repair targets mutations to active genes“. Cell. 27 (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.07.003