We have developed an in vitro DNA polymerase forward mutation assay using damaged DNA templates that contain the herpes simplex virus type 1 thymidine kinase (HSV-tk) gene. The quantitative method uses complementary strand hybridization to gapped duplex DNA molecules and chloramphenicol selection. This design ensures exclusive analysis of mutations derived from the DNA strand produced during in vitro synthesis. We have examined the accuracy of DNA synthesis catalyzed by calf thymus polymerase α-primase, polymerase β and exonuclease-deficient Klenow polymerase. Using unmodified DNA templates, polymerase β displays a unique specificity for the loss of two bases in a dinucleotide repeat sequence within the HSV-tk locus. Treatment of the DNA template with N-ethyl-N-nitrosourea resulted in a dose-dependent inhibition of DNA synthesis concomitant with an increased mutation frequency. Similar dose-response curves were measured for the three polymerases examined; thus the identity of the DNA polymerase does not appear to affect the mutagenic potency of ethyl lesions. The HSV-tk system is unique in that damage-induced mutagenesis can be analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively in human cells, in bacterial cells and in in vitro DNA synthesis reactions at a single target sequence.
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