Cancer: Cell Structures, Carcinogens and Genomic Instability

Volume 96 of the series Experientia Supplementum pp 131-157

Actions of ultraviolet light on cellular structures

  • David I. PattisonAffiliated withThe Heart Research Institute
  • , Michael J. DaviesAffiliated withThe Heart Research Institute

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Solar radiation is the primary source of human exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Overexposure without suitable protection (i.e., sunscreen and clothing) has been implicated in mutagenesis and the onset of skin cancer. These effects are believed to be initiated by UV-mediated cellular damage, with proteins and DNA as primary targets due to a combination of their UV absorption characteristics and their abundance in cells. UV radiation can mediate damage via two different mechanisms: (a) direct absorption of the incident light by the cellular components, resulting in excited state formation and subsequent chemical reaction, and (b) photosensitization mechanisms, where the light is absorbed by endogenous (or exogenous) sensitizers that are excited to their triplet states. The excited photosensitizers can induce cellular damage by two mechanisms: (a) electron transfer and hydrogen abstraction processes to yield free radicals (Type I); or (b) energy transfer with O2 to yield the reactive excited state, singlet oxygen (Type II). Direct UV absorption by DNA leads to dimers of nucleic acid bases including cyclobutane pyrimidine species and pyrimidine (6–4) pyrimidone compounds, together with their Dewar isomers. These three classes of dimers are implicated in the mutagenicity of UV radiation, which is typified by a high level of CC→TT and C→T transversions. Single base modifications can also occur via sensitized reactions including Type 1 and Type II processes. The main DNA product generated by 1O2 is 8-oxo-Gua; this is a common lesion in DNA and is formed by a range of other oxidants in addition to UV. The majority of UV-induced protein damage appears to be mediated by 1O2, which reacts preferentially with Trp, His, Tyr, Met, Cys and cystine side chains. Direct photo-oxidation reactions (particularly with short-wavelength UV) and radicals can also be formed via triplet excited states of some of these side chains. The initial products of 1O2-mediated reactions are endoperoxides with the aromatic residues, and zwitterions with the sulfur-containing residues. These intermediates undergo a variety of further reactions, which can result in radical formation and ring-opening reactions; these result in significant yields of protein cross-links and aggregates, but little protein fragmentation. This review discusses the formation of these UV-induced modifications and their downstream consequences with particular reference to mutagenesis and alterations in protein structure and function.


DNA free radicals photoproducts protein singlet oxygen ultraviolet