DNA polymerase can make mistakes while adding nucleotides. It edits the DNA by proofreading every newly added base. Incorrect bases are removed and replaced by the correct base, and then polymerization continues (Figure 9.13 a). Most mistakes are corrected during replication, although when this does not happen, the mismatch repair mechanism is employed. Mismatch repair enzymes recognize the wrongly incorporated base and excise it from the DNA, replacing it with the correct base (Figure 9.13 b). In yet another type of repair, nucleotide excision repair, the DNA double strand is unwound and separated, the incorrect bases are removed along with a few bases on the 5' and 3' end, and these are replaced by copying the template with the help of DNA polymerase (Figure 9.13c). Nucleotide excision repair is particularly important in correcting thymine dimers, which are primarily caused by ultraviolet light. In a thymine dimer, two thymine nucleotides adjacent to each other on one strand are covalently bonded to each other rather than their complementary bases. If the dimer is not removed and repaired it will lead to a mutation. Individuals with flaws in their nucleotide excision repair genes show extreme sensitivity to sunlight and develop skin cancers early in life.
Most mistakes are corrected; if they are not, they may result in a mutation—defined as a permanent change in the DNA sequence. Mutations in repair genes may lead to serious consequences like cancer.