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Chromosoma. 2012 Feb;121(1):1-20. doi: 10.1007/s00412-011-0347-4. Epub 2011 Nov 3.

DNA glycosylases: in DNA repair and beyond.

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Department of Biomedicine, Institute of Biochemistry and Genetics, University of Basel, Mattenstrasse 28, 4058 Basel, Switzerland.


The base excision repair machinery protects DNA in cells from the damaging effects of oxidation, alkylation, and deamination; it is specialized to fix single-base damage in the form of small chemical modifications. Base modifications can be mutagenic and/or cytotoxic, depending on how they interfere with the template function of the DNA during replication and transcription. DNA glycosylases play a key role in the elimination of such DNA lesions; they recognize and excise damaged bases, thereby initiating a repair process that restores the regular DNA structure with high accuracy. All glycosylases share a common mode of action for damage recognition; they flip bases out of the DNA helix into a selective active site pocket, the architecture of which permits a sensitive detection of even minor base irregularities. Within the past few years, it has become clear that nature has exploited this ability to read the chemical structure of DNA bases for purposes other than canonical DNA repair. DNA glycosylases have been brought into context with molecular processes relating to innate and adaptive immunity as well as to the control of DNA methylation and epigenetic stability. Here, we summarize the key structural and mechanistic features of DNA glycosylases with a special focus on the mammalian enzymes, and then review the evidence for the newly emerging biological functions beyond the protection of genome integrity.

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