Single-strand breaks are a major form of DNA damage caused by ionizing radiation, and measurement of strand breaks has long been used as an index of overall cellular DNA damage. Most assays for DNA single-strand breaks in cells rely on measuring fractionated DNA samples following alkali denaturation. Quantification is usually achieved by prelabeling cells with radioactive DNA precursors; however, this is not possible in the situation of nondividing cells or freshly isolated tissue. It has previously been demonstrated that the alkali unwinding assay of DNA strand breaks can be quantified by blotting the recovered DNA on nylon membranes and hybridizing with radiolabeled sequence-specific probes. We report here improvements to the technique, which include hot alkali denaturation of DNA samples prior to blotting and the use of carrier DNA that is noncomplementary to the radiolabeled probe. Our method allows both single- and double-stranded DNA to be quantified with the same efficiency, thereby improving the sensitivity and reproducibility of the assay, and allows calibration for determination of absolute levels of DNA strand breaks in cells. We also used this method to assay radiation-induced DNA strand breaks in freshly isolated human leukocytes and found them to have a strand break induction rate of 1815 strand breaks/cell/Gy.

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