A hereditary form of colon cancer, hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC), is characterized by high instability of short repeated sequences known as microsatellites. Because the genes controlling microsatellite stability were known in bacteria and yeast, as was their evolutionary conservation, the search for human genes responsible for HNPCC became a `targeted\' search for known sequences. Mismatch-repair deficiency in bacteria and yeast produces multiple phenotypes as a result of its dual involvement in the editing of both replication errors and recombination intermediates. In addition, mismatch-repair functions are specialized in eukaryotes, characterized by specific mitotic (versus meiotic) functions, and nuclear (versus mitochondrial) localization. Given the number of phenotypes observed so far, we predict other links between mismatch-repair deficiency and human genetic disorders. For example, a similar type of sequence instability has been found in HNPCC tumours and in a number of neuro-muscular genetic disorders. Several human mitochondrial disorders display genomic instabilities reminiscent of yeast mitochondrial mismatch-repair mutants. In general, the process of mismatch repair is responsible for the constant maintenance of genome stability and its faithful transmission from one generation to the next. However, without genetic alteration, species would not be able to adapt to changing environments. It appears that nature has developed both negative and positive controls for genetic diversity. In bacteria, for example, an inducible system (sos) exists which generates genetic alterations in response to environmental stress (e.g. radiation, chemicals, starvation). Hence, the cost of generating diversity to adapt to changing conditions might be paid as sporadic gene alterations associated with disease.
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