Background: Antibody genes are diversified by somatic hypermutation (SHM), gene conversion and class-switch recombination. All three processes are initiated by the activation-induced deaminase (AID). According to a DNA deamination model of SHM, AID converts cytosine to uracil in DNA sequences. The initial deamination of cytosine leads to mutation and recombination in pathways involving replication, DNA mismatch repair and possibly base excision repair. The DNA sequence context of mutation hotspots at G-C pairs during SHM is DGYW/WRCH (G-C is a hotspot position, R = A/G, Y = T/C, W = A/T, D = A/G/T). Results: To investigate the mechanisms of AID-induced mutagenesis in a model system, we studied the genetic consequences of AID expression in yeast. We constructed a yeast vector with an artificially synthesized human AID gene insert using codons common to highly expressed yeast genes. We found that expression of the artificial hAIDSc gene was moderately mutagenic in a wild-type strain and highly mutagenic in an ung1 uracil-DNA glycosylase-deficient strain. A majority of mutations were at G-C pairs. In the ung1 strain, C-G to T-A transitions were found almost exclusively, while a mixture of transitions with 12% transversions was characteristic in the wild-type strain. In the ung1 strain mutations that could have originated from deamination of the transcribed stand were found more frequently. In the wild-type strain, the strand bias was reversed. DGYW/WRCH motifs were preferential sites of mutations. Conclusions: The results are consistent with the hypothesis that AID-mediated deamination of DNA is a major cause of mutations at G-C base pairs in immunoglobulin genes during SHM. The sequence contexts of mutations in yeast induced by AID and those of somatic mutations at G-C pairs in immunoglobulin genes are significantly similar. This indicates that the intrinsic substrate specificity of AID itself is a primary determinant of mutational hotspots at G-C base pairs during SHM.
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