Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Chemistry and Biochemistry


Roger A. Coulombe, Jr.


Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are cytotoxic, carcinogenic, and anti-carcinogenic in vivo and in vitro, and they produce many hazardous effects in humans and animals. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) also cross-link with DNA and/or protein. However, whether such cross-linking is important to the toxic action of PAs is not known. In addition, the exact mechanism underlying these DNA cross-links or cytotoxicity is also not clear.

In three separate studies, I characterized the nature of PA-induced DNA cross-links and the relationships between PA structures and cross-linking potency. In the first study (Chapter II), I found that cross-linking potency of PA congeners coincided with their abilities to cause cytopathologic effects. Macrocyclic a,p-unsaturated diesters PAs and their pyrrolic metabolites were the most potent inhibitors of colony formation, and inducers of cytopathologic changes and megalocyte formation. The macrocyclic α, β-saturated diester PA and open diesters PAs slightly inhibited colony formation, and slightly changed cell morphology. Retronecine and indicine N-oxide were completely inactive. In the next study (Chapter Ill), I found that pyrrolic macrocyclic metabolites were more potent DNA cross-linkers than their parent compounds as determined by alkaline elution. The pyrroles of the macrocyclic diester PAs were potent DNADNA (inter- and/or intra) cross-linkers in BstEll-digested λ-phage DNA or pBR322 plasmid DNA but dehydroretronecine and indicine N-oxide were not. I also examined which DNA sequences were more susceptible to PA-induced cross-links by using a series of restriction endonucleases to determine sequence specificity. The most favorable cross-linking site for PAs appeared to be 5'd(GG) and 5'-d(GA) although other sites, 5'-d(CC) or 5'-d(CG), might be also preferable cross-linking targets. In the next study (Chapter IV), I characterized the nature of DNA-protein interactions induced by PAs, because I found in previous studies that PA-induced cross-links are largely protein associated. In PA or pyrrolic PA exposed cells, cross-linked proteins with molecular weights 40 - 60 kD were detected. Two-dimensional electrophoretic analysis revealed that these proteins were probably acidic in nature. In an in vitro system utilizing pBR322 or Bst Ell-digested λ-phage DNA. dehydrosenecionine induced DNAprotein cross-links with BSA, indicating that such interactions might be related to amino acid composition of protein.

These results confirmed that PA-induced DNA cross-links (DNA-DNA, DNA-protein cross-links) are influenced by three structural features: the C1 ,2 unsaturation of pyrrolizidine ring, α, β-unsaturation, and size of the macrocyclic diester ring. The ability to form cross-links was closely related to the known toxic potencies of these PAs. From this research, I also conclude that DNA crosslinking is the most critical event leading to PA-related diseases and that crosslinking is due to pyrrolic metabolites of PAs, not via a common metabolite as was once thought.

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