Ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS) is a monofunctional ethylating agent that has been found to be mutagenic in a wide variety of genetic test systems from viruses to mammals. It has also been shown to be carcinogenic in mammals. Alkylation of cellular, nucleophilic sites by EMS occurs via a mixed SN1/SN2 reaction mechanism. While ethylation of DNA occurs principally at nitrogen positions in the bases, because of the partial SN1 character of the reaction, EMS is also able to produce significant levels of alkylation at oxygens such as the O6 of guanine and in the DNA phosphate groups. Genetic data obtained using microorganisms suggest that EMS may produce both GC to AT and AT to GC transition mutations. There is also some evidence that EMS can cause base-pair insertions or deletions as well as more extensive intragenic deletions. In higher organisms, there is clear-cut evidence that EMS is able to break chromosomes, although the mechanisms involved are not well understood. An often cited hypothesis is that DNA bases ethylated by EMS (mostly the N-7 position of guanine) gradually hydrolyze from the deoxyribose on the DNA backbone leaving behind an apurinic (or possibly an apyrimidinic) site that is unstable and can lead to single-strand breakage of the DNA. Data also exist that suggest that ethylation of some chromosomal proteins in mouse spermatids by EMS may be an important factor in causing chromosome breakage.
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