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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

N-nitroso-N-ethylurea activates DNA damage surveillance pathways and induces transformation in mammalian cells

Satish Bodakuntla1, Libi Anandi V1, Surojit Sural12, Prasad Trivedi13 and Mayurika Lahiri1*

Author Affiliations

1 Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, Maharashtra 411008, India

2 Current address: Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, University of Michigan, Anne Arbor, MI 48109, USA

3 Current address: Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Genetics, University of Virginia Medical Center, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA

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BMC Cancer 2014, 14:287  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-14-287

Published: 24 April 2014



The DNA damage checkpoint signalling cascade sense damaged DNA and coordinates cell cycle arrest, DNA repair, and/or apoptosis. However, it is still not well understood how the signalling system differentiates between different kinds of DNA damage. N-nitroso-N-ethylurea (NEU), a DNA ethylating agent induces both transversions and transition mutations.


Immunoblot and comet assays were performed to detect DNA breaks and activation of the canonical checkpoint signalling kinases following NEU damage upto 2 hours. To investigate whether mismatch repair played a role in checkpoint activation, knock-down studies were performed while flow cytometry analysis was done to understand whether the activation of the checkpoint kinases was cell cycle phase specific. Finally, breast epithelial cells were grown as 3-dimensional spheroid cultures to study whether NEU can induce upregulation of vimentin as well as disrupt cell polarity of the breast acini, thus causing transformation of epithelial cells in culture.


We report a novel finding that NEU causes activation of major checkpoint signalling kinases, Chk1 and Chk2. This activation is temporally controlled with Chk2 activation preceding Chk1 phosphorylation, and absence of cross talk between the two parallel signalling pathways, ATM and ATR. Damage caused by NEU leads to the temporal formation of both double strand and single strand breaks. Activation of checkpoints following NEU damage is cell cycle phase dependent wherein Chk2 is primarily activated during G2-M phase whilst in S phase, there is immediate Chk1 phosphorylation and delayed Chk2 response. Surprisingly, the mismatch repair system does not play a role in checkpoint activation, at doses and duration of NEU used in the experiments. Interestingly, NEU caused disruption of the well-formed polarised spheroid archithecture and upregulation of vimentin in three-dimensional breast acini cultures of non-malignant breast epithelial cells upon NEU treatment indicating NEU to have the potential to cause early transformation in the cells.


NEU causes damage in mammalian cells in the form of double strand and single strand breaks that temporally activate the major checkpoint signalling kinases without the occurrence of cross-talk between the pathways. NEU also appear to cause transformation in three-dimensional spheroid cultures.

N-nitroso-N-ethylurea; DNA lesions; Epithelial - mesenchymal transition; Mismatch repair; O6-ethylguanine; DNA damage response; Checkpoints; Cell cycle; Comet assay; 3-dimesional cultures; Transformation