The functional analysis of missense mutations can be complicated by the presence in the cell of the endogenous protein. Structure-function analyses of the BRCA1 have been complicated by the lack of a robust assay for the full length BRCA1 protein and the difficulties inherent in working with cell lines that express hypomorphic BRCA1 protein. We developed a system whereby the endogenous BRCA1 protein in a cell was acutely depleted by RNAi targeting the 3'-UTR of the BRCA1 mRNA and replaced by co-transfecting a plasmid expressing a BRCA1 variant. One advantage of this procedure is that the acute silencing of BRCA1 and simultaneous replacement allow the cells to grow without secondary mutations or adaptations that might arise over time to compensate for the loss of BRCA1 function. This depletion and add-back procedure was done in a HeLa-derived cell line that was readily assayed for homologous recombination activity. The homologous recombination assay is based on a previously published method whereby a recombination substrate is integrated into the genome (Figure 1). This recombination substrate has the rare-cutting I-SceI restriction enzyme site inside an inactive GFP allele, and downstream is a second inactive GFP allele. Transfection of the plasmid that expresses I-SceI results in a double-stranded break, which may be repaired by homologous recombination, and if homologous recombination does repair the break it creates an active GFP allele that is readily scored by flow cytometry for GFP protein expression. Depletion of endogenous BRCA1 resulted in an 8-10-fold reduction in homologous recombination activity, and add-back of wild-type plasmid fully restored homologous recombination function. When specific point mutants of full length BRCA1 were expressed from co-transfected plasmids, the effect of the specific missense mutant could be scored. As an example, the expression of the BRCA1(M18T) protein, a variant of unknown clinical significance, was expressed in these cells, it failed to restore BRCA1-dependent homologous recombination. By contrast, expression of another variant, also of unknown significance, BRCA1(I21V) fully restored BRCA1-dependent homologous recombination function. This strategy of testing the function of BRCA1 missense mutations has been applied to another biological system assaying for centrosome function (Kais et al, unpublished observations). Overall, this approach is suitable for the analysis of missense mutants in any gene that must be analyzed recessively.
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