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Keywords:

  • Chk2;
  • DNA double-strand breaks;
  • γ-H2AX;
  • senescence;
  • telomeres

Telomere shortening in normal human cells causes replicative senescence, a p53-dependent growth arrest state, which is thought to represent an innate defence against tumour progression. However, although it has been postulated that critical telomere loss generates a ‘DNA damage’ signal, the signalling pathway(s) that alerts cells to short dysfunctional telomeres remains only partially defined. We show that senescence in human fibroblasts is associated with focal accumulation of γ-H2AX and phosphorylation of Chk2, known mediators of the ataxia-telangiectasia mutated regulated signalling pathway activated by DNA double-strand breaks. Both these responses increased in cells grown beyond senescence through inactivation of p53 and pRb, indicating that they are driven by continued cell division and not a consequence of senescence. γ-H2AX (though not Chk2) was shown to associate directly with telomeric DNA. Furthermore, inactivation of Chk2 in human fibroblasts led to a fall in p21waf1 expression and an extension of proliferative lifespan, consistent with failure to activate p53. Thus, Chk2 forms an essential component of a common pathway signalling cell cycle arrest in response to both telomere erosion and DNA damage.