In eukaryotic cells, replication of genomic DNA initiates from multiple replication origins distributed on multiple chromosomes. To ensure that each origin is activated precisely only once during each S phase, a system has evolved which features periodic assembly and disassembly of essential pre-replication complexes (pre-RCs) at replication origins. The pre-RC assembly reaction involves the loading of a presumptive replicative helicase, the MCM2-7 complexes, onto chromatin by the origin recognition complex (ORC) and two essential factors, CDC6 and Cdt1. The eukaryotic cell cycle is driven by the periodic activation and inactivation of cyclin-dependent kinases (Cdks) and assembly of pre-RCs can only occur during the low Cdk activity period from late mitosis through G1 phase, with inappropriate re-assembly suppressed during S, G2, and M phases. It was originally suggested that inhibition of Cdt1 function after S phase in vertebrate cells is due to geminin binding and that Cdt1 hyperfunction resulting from Cdt1-geminin imbalance induces re-replication. However, recent progress has revealed that Cdt1 activity is more strictly regulated by two other mechanisms in addition to geminin: (1) functional and SCFSkp2-mediated proteolytic regulation through phosphorylation by Cdks; and (2) replication-coupled proteolysis mediated by the Cullin4-DDB1Cdt2 ubiquitin ligase and PCNA, an eukaryotic sliding clamp stimulating replicative DNA polymerases. The tight regulation implies that Cdt1 control is especially critical for the regulation of DNA replication in mammalian cells. Indeed, Cdt1 overexpression evokes chromosomal damage even without re-replication. Furthermore, deregulated Cdt1 induces chromosomal instability in normal human cells. Since Cdt1 is overexpressed in cancer cells, this could be a new molecular mechanism leading to carcinogenesis. In this review, recent insights into Cdt1 function and regulation in mammalian cells are discussed.
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