Participants in deep space missions face protracted exposure to galactic cosmic radiation (GCR). In this setting, lung cancer is a significant component of the overall risk of radiation-exposure induced death. Here we investigate persistent effects of GCR exposure on DNA repair capacity in lung-derived epithelial cells, using an enzyme-stimulated chromosomal rearrangement as an endpoint. Replicate cell cultures were irradiated with energetic 48Ti ions (a GCR component) or reference γ-rays. After a six-day recovery, they were challenged by expression of a Cas9/sgRNA pair that creates double-strand breaks simultaneously in the EML4 and ALK loci, misjoining of which creates an EML4-ALK fusion oncogene. Misjoining was significantly elevated in 48Ti-irradiated populations, relative to the baseline rate in mock-irradiated controls. The effect was not seen in γ-ray irradiated populations exposed to equal or higher radiation doses. Sequence analysis of the EML4-ALK joints from 48Ti-irradiated cultures showed that they were far more likely to contain deletions, sometimes flanked by short microhomologies, than equivalent samples from mock-irradiated cultures, consistent with a shift toward error-prone alternative nonhomologous end joining repair. Results suggest a potential mechanism by which a persistent physiological effect of GCR exposure may increase lung cancer risk.
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