Copyright © 2014. Published by Elsevier B.V.
Ku is an abundant, highly conserved DNA binding protein found in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes that plays essential roles in the maintenance of genome integrity. In eukaryotes, Ku is a heterodimer comprised of two subunits, Ku70 and Ku80, that is best characterized for its central role as the initial DNA end binding factor in the "classical" non-homologous end joining (C-NHEJ) pathway, the main DNA double-strand break (DSB) repair pathway in mammals. Ku binds double-stranded DNA ends with high affinity in a sequence-independent manner through a central ring formed by the intertwined strands of the Ku70 and Ku80 subunits. At the break, Ku directly and indirectly interacts with several C-NHEJ factors and processing enzymes, serving as the scaffold for the entire DNA repair complex. There is also evidence that Ku is involved in signaling to the DNA damage response (DDR) machinery to modulate the activation of cell cycle checkpoints and the activation of apoptosis. Interestingly, Ku is also associated with telomeres, where, paradoxically to its DNA end-joining functions, it protects the telomere ends from being recognized as DSBs, thereby preventing their recombination and degradation. Ku, together with the silent information regulator (Sir) complex is also required for transcriptional silencing through telomere position effect (TPE). How Ku associates with telomeres, whether it is through direct DNA binding, or through protein-protein interactions with other telomere bound factors remains to be determined. Ku is central to the protection of organisms through its participation in C-NHEJ to repair DSBs generated during V(D)J recombination, a process that is indispensable for the establishment of the immune response. Ku also functions to prevent tumorigenesis and senescence since Ku-deficient mice show increased cancer incidence and early onset of aging. Overall, Ku function is critical to the maintenance of genomic integrity and to proper cellular and organismal development.