The Cell Biology of Stem Cells

Volume 695 of the series Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology pp 59-75

Preservation of Genomic Integrity in Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells

  • Peter J. StambrookAffiliated withDepartment of Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry and Microbiology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine Email author 
  • , Elisia D. TichyAffiliated withDepartment of Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry and Microbiology, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine


Embryonic stem (ES) cells and germ cells have the potential to give rise to an entire organism. A common requirement is that both must have very robust mechanisms to preserve the integrity of their genomes. This is particularly true since somatic cells have very high mutation frequencies approaching 10-4 in vivo that would lead to unacceptable levels of fetal lethality and congenital defects. Notably, between 70% and 80% of mutational events monitored at a heterozygous endogenous selectable marker were loss of heterozygosity due to mitotic recombination, a mechanism that affects multiple heterozygous loci between the reporter gene and the site of crossing over. This chapter examines three mechanisms by which mouse embryonic stem cells preserve their genomic integrity. The first entails suppression of mutation and recombination between chromosome homologues by two orders of magnitude when compared with isogenic mouse embryo fibroblasts which had a mutation frequency similar to that seen in adult somatic cells. The second renders mouse ES cells hypersensitive to environmental challenge and eliminates damaged cells from the self-renewing population. Mouse ES cells lack a G1 checkpoint so that cells damaged by exogenous insult such as ionizing radiation do not arrest at the G1/S phase checkpoint but progress into the S phase where the damaged DNA is replicated, the damage exacerbated and the cells driven to apoptosis. The third mechanism examines how mouse ES cells repair double strand DNA breaks. Somatic cells predominantly utilize error prone nonhomologous end joining which, from a teleological perspective, would be disadvantageous for ES cells since it would promote accumulation of mutations. When ES cells were tested for the preferred pathway of double strand DNA break repair, they predominantly utilized the high fidelity homology-mediated repair pathway, thereby minimizing the incurrence of mutations during the repair process. When mouse ES cells are induced to differentiate, the predominant repair pathway switches from homology-mediated repair to nonhomologous end joining that is characteristic of somatic cells.