Male weanling Fischer 344 rats were fed either a semipurified diet deficient in the methyl donors methionine, choline, and folic acid or a supplemented control diet for a period of 9 weeks. At intervals of 2, 5, and 7 days, 3 weeks, and 9 weeks after initiation of the respective diets, the relative level of DNA strand breaks and the degree of cytosine methylation were quantified in high molecular weight DNA and also within the p53 gene in liver samples from these rats. Genome-wide strand break accumulation was associated with progressive genomic hypomethylation and increased DNA methyltransferase activity. With the use of quantitative PCR as a gene-specific DNA strand break assay, unique DNA strand breaks were detected in exon 5 but not in exons 6–8 of the p53 gene, and were accompanied by significant p53 gene hypomethylation. DNA hypomethylation has been shown to alter the conformation and stability of the chromatin structure, rendering affected regions more accessible to DNA-damaging agents. To determine whether methylation status alters the sensitivity of DNA to strand breakage, DNA in isolated nuclei was methylated in vitro and exposed to endogenous calcium/magnesium-dependent endonuclease activated under defined conditions. The incidence of enzyme-induced DNA strand breaks was decreased significantly with increased DNA methylation. In nuclei isolated from livers of methyl-deficient rats, the hypomethylated DNA was found to be more sensitive to enzyme- and oxidant-induced DNA strand break induction. Taken together, these results provide evidence that DNA strand breaks are induced in high molecular weight DNA and also within the p53 gene in liver tissue from methyl-deficient rats. The increased incidence of these strand breaks in DNA from methyl-deficient rats may be related to alterations in chromatin accessibility associated with DNA hypomethylation.

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Financial support for this work was provided by American Cancer Society Research Grant CN-73C (to S. J. J.) and by an appointment to the Postgraduate Research Program administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education through an interagency agreement between the United States Department of Energy and the Food and Drug Administration (A. G. B., N. G. L.).

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