The nucleotide excision repair of certain bulky DNA lesions is abrogated in some specific non-canonical DNA base sequence contexts, while the removal of the same lesions by the nucleotide excision repair mechanism is efficient in duplexes in which all base pairs are complementary. Here we show that the nucleotide excision repair activity in human cell extracts is moderate-to-high in the case of two stereoisomeric DNA lesions derived fromthe pro-carcinogen benzo[a]pyrene (cis- and trans-B[a]P-N2-dG adducts) in a normal DNA duplex. By contrast, the nucleotide excision repair activity is completely abrogated when the canonical cytosine base opposite the B[a]P-dG adducts is replaced by an abasic site in duplex DNA. However, base excision repair of the abasic site persists. In order to understand the structural origins of these striking phenomena, we used NMR and molecular spectroscopy techniques to evaluate the conformational features of 11mer DNA duplexes containing these B[a]P-dG lesions opposite abasic sites. Our results show that in these duplexes containing the clustered lesions, both B[a]P-dG adducts adopt base-displaced intercalated conformations, with the B[a]P aromatic rings intercalated into the DNA helix. To explain the persistence of base excision repair in the face of the opposed bulky B[a]P ring system, molecular modeling results suggest how the APE1 base excision repair endonuclease, that excises abasic lesions, can bind productively even with the trans-B[a]P-dG positioned opposite the abasic site. We hypothesize that the nucleotide excision repair resistance is fostered by local B[a]P residue - DNA base stacking interactions at the abasic sites, that are facilitated by the absence of the cytosine partner base in the complementary strand. More broadly, this study sets the stage for elucidating the interplay between base excision and nucleotide excision repair in processing different types of clustered DNA lesions that are substrates of nucleotide excision repair or base excision repair mechanisms.
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