Chromosome translocations are hallmark of cancer and of radiation-induced cell killing, reflecting joining of incongruent DNA-ends that alter the genome. Translocation-formation requires DNA end-joining mechanisms and incompletely characterized, permissive chromatin conditions. We show that chromatin destabilization by clusters of DNA double-strand-breaks (DSBs) generated by the I-SceI meganuclease at multiple, appropriately engineered genomic sites, compromises c-NHEJ and markedly increases cell killing and translocation-formation compared to single-DSBs. Translocation-formation from DSB-clusters utilizes Parp1 activity, implicating alt-EJ in their formation. Immunofluorescence experiments show that single-DSBs and DSB-clusters uniformly provoke the formation of single γ-H2AX foci, suggesting similar activation of early DNA damage response (DDR). Live-cell imaging also shows similar single-focus recruitment of the early-response protein MDC1, to single-DSBs and DSB-clusters. Notably, the late DDR protein, 53BP1 shows in live-cell imaging strikingly stronger recruitment to DSB-clusters as compared to single-DSBs. This is the first report that chromatin thripsis, in the form of engineered DSB-clusters, compromises first-line DSB-repair pathways, allowing alt-EJ to function as rescuing-backup. DSB-cluster-formation is indirectly linked to the increased biological effectiveness of high ionization-density radiations, such as the alpha-particles emitted by radon gas or the heavy-ions utilized in cancer therapy. Our observations provide the first direct mechanistic explanation for this long-known effect.
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