Stabilization of stalled replication forks prevents excessive fork reversal or degradation, which can undermine genome integrity. The WRN protein is unique among the other human RecQ family members to possess exonuclease activity. However, the biological role of the WRN exonuclease is poorly defined. Recently, the WRN exonuclease has been linked to protection of stalled forks from degradation. Alternative processing of perturbed forks has been associated to chemoresistance of BRCA-deficient cancer cells. Thus, we used WRN exonuclease-deficiency as a model to investigate the fate of perturbed forks undergoing degradation, but in a BRCA wild-type condition. We find that, upon treatment with clinically-relevant nanomolar doses of the Topoisomerase I inhibitor camptothecin, loss of WRN exonuclease stimulates fork inactivation and accumulation of parental gaps, which engages RAD51. Such mechanism affects reinforcement of CHK1 phosphorylation and causes persistence of RAD51 during recovery from treatment. Notably, in WRN exonuclease-deficient cells, persistence of RAD51 correlates with elevated mitotic phosphorylation of MUS81 at Ser87, which is essential to prevent excessive mitotic abnormalities. Altogether, these findings indicate that aberrant fork degradation, in the presence of a wild-type RAD51 axis, stimulates RAD51-mediated post-replicative repair and engagement of the MUS81 complex to limit genome instability and cell death.
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