Cell cycle checkpoints are implemented to safeguard the genome, avoiding the accumulation of genetic errors. Checkpoint loss results in genomic instability and contributes to the evolution of cancer. Among G1-, S-, G2- and M-phase checkpoints, genetic studies indicate the role of an intact S-phase checkpoint in maintaining genome integrity. Although the basic framework of the S-phase checkpoint in multicellular organisms has been outlined, the mechanistic details remain to be elucidated. Human chromosome-11 band-q23 translocations disrupting the MLL gene lead to poor prognostic leukaemias. Here we assign MLL as a novel effector in the mammalian S-phase checkpoint network and identify checkpoint dysfunction as an underlying mechanism of MLL leukaemias. MLL is phosphorylated at serine 516 by ATR in response to genotoxic stress in the S phase, which disrupts its interaction with, and hence its degradation by, the SCF(Skp2) E3 ligase, leading to its accumulation. Stabilized MLL protein accumulates on chromatin, methylates histone H3 lysine 4 at late replication origins and inhibits the loading of CDC45 to delay DNA replication. Cells deficient in MLL showed radioresistant DNA synthesis and chromatid-type genomic abnormalities, indicative of S-phase checkpoint dysfunction. Reconstitution of Mll(-/-) (Mll also known as Mll1) mouse embryonic fibroblasts with wild-type but not S516A or ΔSET mutant MLL rescues the S-phase checkpoint defects. Moreover, murine myeloid progenitor cells carrying an Mll-CBP knock-in allele that mimics human t(11;16) leukaemia show a severe radioresistant DNA synthesis phenotype. MLL fusions function as dominant negative mutants that abrogate the ATR-mediated phosphorylation/stabilization of wild-type MLL on damage to DNA, and thus compromise the S-phase checkpoint. Together, our results identify MLL as a key constituent of the mammalian DNA damage response pathway and show that deregulation of the S-phase checkpoint incurred by MLL translocations probably contributes to the pathogenesis of human MLL leukaemias.
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