APOBEC3 proteins mediate the clearance of foreign DNA from human cells

Mark D. Stenglein, Michael B. Burns, Ming Li, Joy Lengyel, Reuben S. Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

260 Scopus citations


Bacteria evolved restriction endonucleases to prevent interspecies DNA transmission and bacteriophage infection. Here we show that human cells possess an analogous mechanism. APOBEC3A is induced by interferon following DNA detection, and it deaminates foreign double-stranded DNA cytidines to uridines. These atypical DNA nucleosides are converted by the uracil DNA glycosylase UNG2 to abasic lesions, which lead to foreign DNA degradation. This mechanism is evident in cell lines and primary monocytes, where up to 97% of cytidines in foreign DNA are deaminated. In contrast, cellular genomic DNA appears unaffected. Several other APOBEC3s also restrict foreign gene transfer. Related proteins exist in all vertebrates, indicating that foreign DNA restriction may be a conserved innate immune defense mechanism. The efficiency and fidelity of genetic engineering, gene therapy, and DNA vaccination are likely to be influenced by this anti-DNA defense system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)222-229
Number of pages8
JournalNature Structural and Molecular Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank J. Albin, J. Hultquist, D. Kaufman, L. Lackey and D. Trono for thoughtful feedback, P. Hackett and S. McIvor (University of Minnesota) for SB reagents, H. Bull (University of Saskatchewan) for help with antibody production, B. Thielen and J. Lingappa (Univ. of Washington) for sharing in vitro DNA deaminase assay protocols, M. Cornwell and J.Valesano for technical assistance, B. Cullen (Duke University), R. Tsien (University of California, San Diego), and J. DiNoia (Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal) for plasmid constructs and J. Hanten (3M) for reagents and helpful discussions in the early stages of these studies. M.D.S. was supported in part by a 3M Graduate Fellowship and a Cancer Biology Training Grant (CA009138). M.B.B. was supported in part by the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. This work was supported by grants from the US National Institutes of Health, GM090437 and AI064046.


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