The mechanism by which X rays inhibit DNA replication has been investigated in three distinct populations of DNA molecules in human cells: (a) large chromosomal DNA, (b) a population of 50-100 10.3-kb nuclear episomal plasmids per cell, and (c) a population of about 500 16-kb cytoplasmic mitochondrial DNA molecules per cell. DNA replication was inhibited by X rays in nuclear chromosomal and plasmid DNA, but not in mitochondrial DNA. The mechanism by which ionizing radiation inhibits DNA replication must therefore be nuclear-specific and is unlikely to involve diffusible low-molecular-weight substances. Since mitochondrial DNA exists in the cell as independent 16-kb circular molecules and responds to radiation as would be expected for small targets, the implication for nuclear plasmids is that their replication is regulated by a large target. A current model for DNA replication involves the movement of DNA through replication centers made up of polymerases, helicases, and associated replication enzymes that are attached to a matrix. The difference in the response to X rays between mitochondrial DNA and nuclear plasmid DNA can be explained if nuclear plasmids are tightly associated with chromosomal DNA and attached to the matrix, and are coordinately replicated.

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