R-loops: targets for nuclease cleavage and repeat instability
R-loops form when transcribed RNA remains bound to its DNA template to form a stable RNA:DNA hybrid. Stable R-loops form when the RNA is purine-rich, and are further stabilized by DNA secondary structures on the non-template strand. Interestingly, many expandable and disease-causing repeat sequences form stable R-loops, and R-loops can contribute to repeat instability. Repeat expansions are responsible for multiple neurodegenerative diseases, including Huntington’s disease, myotonic dystrophy, and several types of ataxias. Recently, it was found that R-loops at an expanded CAG/CTG repeat tract cause DNA breaks as well as repeat instability (Su and Freudenreich, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114, E8392–E8401, 2017). Two factors were identified as causing R-loop-dependent breaks at CAG/CTG tracts: deamination of cytosines and the MutLγ (Mlh1–Mlh3) endonuclease, defining two new mechanisms for how R-loops can generate DNA breaks (Su and Freudenreich, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114, E8392–E8401, 2017). Following R-loop-dependent nicking, base excision repair resulted in repeat instability. These results have implications for human repeat expansion diseases and provide a paradigm for how RNA:DNA hybrids can cause genome instability at structure-forming DNA sequences. This perspective summarizes mechanisms of R-loop-induced fragility at G-rich repeats and new links between DNA breaks and repeat instability.