Dynamic expansions of toxic polyglutamine (polyQ)-encoding CAG repeats in ubiquitously expressed, but otherwise unrelated, genes cause a number of late-onset progressive neurodegenerative disorders, including Huntington disease and the spinocerebellar ataxias. As polyQ toxicity in these disorders increases with repeat length, the intergenerational expansion of unstable CAG repeats leads to anticipation, an earlier age-at-onset in successive generations. Crucially, disease associated alleles are also somatically unstable and continue to expand throughout the lifetime of the individual. Interestingly, the inherited polyQ length mediating a specific age-at-onset of symptoms varies markedly between disorders. It is widely assumed that these inter-locus differences in polyQ toxicity are mediated by protein context effects. Previously, we demonstrated that the tendency of expanded CAG•CTG repeats to undergo further intergenerational expansion (their 'expandability') also differs between disorders and these effects are strongly correlated with the GC content of the genomic flanking DNA. Here we show that the inter-locus toxicity of the expanded polyQ tracts of these disorders also correlates with both the expandability of the underlying CAG repeat and the GC content of the genomic DNA flanking sequences. Inter-locus polyQ toxicity does not correlate with properties of the mRNA or protein sequences, with polyQ location within the gene or protein, or steady state transcript levels in the brain. These data suggest that the observed inter-locus differences in polyQ toxicity are not mediated solely by protein context effects, but that genomic context is also important, an effect that may be mediated by modifying the rate at which somatic expansion of the DNA delivers proteins to their cytotoxic state.
2011. Vol. 6, no 12