DNA repair is an essential cellular function, which, by removing DNA damage before it can cause mutations, contributes crucially to the prevention of cancer. Interest in the influence of micronutrients on DNA repair activity is prompted by the possibility that the protective effects of fruits and vegetables might thus be explained. Two approaches to measuring repair-monitoring cellular removal of DNA damage and incubating cell extract with specifically damaged DNA in an in vitro assay-have been applied in cell culture, whole animal studies, and human trials. In addition, there are numerous investigations at the level of expression of DNA repair-related genes.
Depending on the pathway studied and the phytochemical or food tested, there are varied reports of stimulation, inhibition or no effect on DNA repair. The clearest findings are from human supplementation trials in which lymphocytes are assessed for their repair capacity ex vivo. Studying cellular repair of strand breaks is complicated by the fact that lymphocytes appear to repair them very slowly. Applying the in vitro repair assay to human lymphocytes has revealed stimulatory effects on repair of oxidised bases by various micronutrients or a fruit- and vegetable-rich diet, while other studies have failed to demonstrate effects.
Despite varied results from different studies, it seems clear that micronutrients can influence DNA repair, usually but not always enhancing activity. Different modes of DNA repair are likely to be subject to different regulatory mechanisms. Measures of gene expression tend to be a poor guide to repair activity, and there is no substitute for phenotypic assays.