Uncovering the mechanisms of mutagenesis: from dry lab to wet lab and back again

Understanding the mechanisms of mutagenesis is important for prevention and treatment of numerous diseases, most prominently cancer. Large sequencing datasets revealed a substantial number of mutational processes in recent years, many of which are poorly understood or of completely unknown aetiology. These mutational processes leave characteristic sequence patterns in the DNA, often called “mutational signatures”. We use bioinformatics methods to characterise the mutational signatures with respect to different genomic features and processes in order to unravel the aetiology and mechanisms of mutagenesis.
In this talk, I will present our results on how mutational processes might be modulated by DNA replication. We developed a linear-algebra-based method to quantify the magnitude of replication strand asymmetry of mutational signatures in individual patients, followed by detection of these signatures in early and late replicating regions. Our analysis shows that a surprisingly high proportion (more than 75 %) of mutational signatures exhibits a significant replication strand asymmetry or correlation with replication timing. However, distinct groups of signatures have distinct replication-associated properties, capturing differences in DNA repair related to replication, and how different types of DNA damage are translated into mutations during replication. These findings shed new light on the aetiology of several common but poorly explained mutational signatures, such as suggesting a novel role of replication in the mutagenesis due to 5-methylcytosine (signature 1), or supporting involvement of oxidative damage in the aetiology of a signature characteristic for oesophageal cancers (signature 17). I will conclude with our ongoing work of wet-lab validations of some of these hypotheses and usage of computational methods (such as genetic algorithms) in guiding the development of experimental protocols.