Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzo(a)pyrene diol-epoxide (BPDE-I) cause hepatocellular carcinoma. To identify short-term carcinogen effects, we studied hepatocytes transfected with nonreplicating plasmids, adducted covalently with BPDE-I, varying in promoter structure and encoded reporter gene (β-galactosidase or luciferase). BPDE inactivated gene expression as a first-order function of BPDE concentration in adduction reactions. No evidence of cytotoxicity, diminished coprecipitation and availability, enhanced nicking of supercoiled forms and reduced cellular uptake, or instability of adducted plasmids was observed. At low BPDE:plasmid ratios, inactivation occurred with 1 adduct/plasmid within a target 23–27% of plasmid bases. Using nuclear extracts and BPDE-adducted G-free cassette-encoding plasmids, the fraction of full-length RNA polymerase II-initiated transcripts also declined as a first-order function of BPDE concentration when ≈3 adducts were distributed among 48% of plasmid bases. These observations suggest that carcinogens such as BPDE block mRNA transcription along DNA templates by forming limited numbers of persistent adducts at coding or noncoding sites.

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This research was supported by the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, University of California (IRT137 to H. L. L.), the United States Public Health Service (DK28215 to H. L. L.; GM41804 to D. A. B.), and the American Cancer Society (IN93R to K. S. K.).

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