The comet assay, DNA damage, DNA repair and cytotoxicity: hedgehogs are not dead
DNA damage is commonly measured at the level of individual cells using the so-called comet assay (single-cell gel electrophoresis). As the frequency of DNA breaks increases, so does the fraction of the DNA extending towards the anode, forming the comet tail. Comets with almost all DNA in the tail are often referred to as 'hedgehog' comets and are widely assumed to represent apoptotic cells. We review the literature and present theoretical and empirical arguments against this interpretation. The level of DNA damage in these comets is far less than the massive fragmentation that occurs in apoptosis. 'Hedgehog' comets are formed after moderate exposure of cells to, for example, H2O2, but if the cells are incubated for a short period, 'hedgehogs' are no longer seen. We confirm that this is not because DNA has degraded further and been lost from the gel, but because the DNA is repaired. The comet assay may detect the earliest stages of apoptosis, but as it proceeds, comets disappear in a smear of unattached DNA. It is clear that 'hedgehogs' can correspond to one level on a continuum of genotoxic damage, are not diagnostic of apoptosis and should not be regarded as an indicator of cytotoxicity.