Genomic instability, including the ability to undergo gene amplification, is a hallmark of neoplastic cells. Similar to normal cells, “nonpermissive” REF52 cells do not develop resistance to N-(phosphonacetyl)-l-aspartate (PALA), an inhibitor of the synthesis of pyrimidine nucleotides, through amplification of cad, the target gene, but instead undergo protective, long-term, p53-dependent cell cycle arrest. Expression of exogenous MYC prevents this arrest and allows REF52 cells to proceed to mitosis when pyrimidine nucleotides are limiting. This results in DNA breaks, leading to cell death and, rarely, to cad gene amplification and PALA resistance. Pretreatment of REF52 cells with a low concentration of PALA, which slows DNA replication but does not trigger cell cycle arrest, followed by exposure to a high, selective concentration of PALA, promotes the formation of PALA-resistant cells in which the physically linked cad and endogenous N-myc genes are coamplified. The activated expression of endogenous N-myc in these pretreated PALA-resistant cells allows them to bypass the p53-mediated arrest that is characteristic of untreated REF52 cells. Our data demonstrate that two distinct events are required to form PALA-resistant REF52 cells: amplification of cad, whose product overcomes the action of the drug, and increased expression of N-myc, whose product overcomes the PALA-induced cell cycle block. These paired events occur at a detectable frequency only when the genes are physically linked, as cad and N-myc are. In untreated REF52 cells overexpressing N-MYC, the level of p53 is significantly elevated but there is no induction of p21waf1 expression or growth arrest. However, after DNA is damaged, the activated p53 executes rapid apoptosis in these REF52/N-myc cells instead of the long-term protective arrest seen in REF52 cells. The predominantly cytoplasmic localization of stabilized p53 in REF52/N-myc cells suggests that cytoplasmic retention may help to inactivate the growth-suppressing function of p53
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