Munira A. Basrai, Ph.D.

Munira A. Basrai, Ph.D.
Senior Investigator
Head, Yeast Genome Stability Section

Dr. Basrai’s research focuses on the molecular mechanisms for faithful chromosome segregation in budding yeast and human cells. Her group uses multi-organismal (yeast, mouse and human cells) and multi-disciplinary (genetic, cell biology, biochemical and genome-wide) approaches to identify and characterize pathways that prevent chromosomal instability (CIN) an important hallmark of cancers. Basrai laboratory has characterized the role of centromere binding proteins and provided mechanistic insights into how acetylation, phosphorylation, sumoylation and ubiquitination of centromeric histone H3 variant, Cse4,(CENP-A in humans) and H4 regulate chromosome segregation. They have shown that mislocalization of Cse4 to non-centromeric regions leads to CIN in yeast and extensive use of genome-wide screens has identified pathways that prevent mislocalization of Cse4 to prevent CIN. Mislocalization of CENP-A is observed in many cancers. Her group has established that mislocalization of CENP-A contributes to CIN and aneuploidy with karytotypic heterogeneity in human cells and xenograft mouse model. These studies provide critical insights into CIN and will allow translation of basic science research to the clinic and aid in the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of cancers such as those that overexpress CENP-A.

Areas of Expertise

1) mitosis, 2) chromosome segregation, 3) centromeric histones, 4) epigenetic mechanisms, 5) aneuploidy, 6) budding yeast

Contact Info

Munira A. Basrai, Ph.D.
Center for Cancer Research
National Cancer Institute
Building 41, Room B624
Bethesda, MD 20892-5055
Ph: 240-760-6746
240-760-7012 (Lab)
Fax: 240-541-4529

Causes and consequences of chromosomal instability (CIN) in budding yeast and human cancers

Goals and Objectives:

Chromosomal instability (CIN) is a hallmark of many cancers and a major contributor to tumorigenesis. CIN is characterized by unequal distribution of chromosomes into two daughter cells (numerical CIN) and/or structural rearrangements of the genome (structural CIN). Under selective conditions, CIN results in aneuploidy, which is observed in 90% of solid tumors. One of the key determinants for chromosomal stability is the centromere which serves not only as a site for kinetochore (centromere DNA and associated proteins) assembly but also a locus for kinetochore-microtubule (KT-MT) attachments and spindle assembly checkpoint function. Despite the differences in DNA sequences and size, all eukaryotic centromeres contain an evolutionary conserved histone H3 variant (CENP-A in humans, CID in flies and Cse4 in budding yeast). Restricting the localization of CENP-A is essential for faithful chromosome segregation. Mislocalization of CENP-A and its homologs to non-centromeric regions contributes to aneuploidy in yeast and flies. The proliferation of cancer cells is caused by dysregulation of evolutionarily conserved fundamental processes such as cell cycle control and chromosome segregation. The high degree of conservation between S. cerevisiae and human genes makes budding yeast an invaluable tool for cancer research and allow us to molecularly dissect the interplay between centromeric chromatin, cell cycle regulation, gene dosage, and chromosomal stability. Our research is focused on understanding the assembly and regulation of centromeric chromatin for faithful chromosome segregation. We have pioneered studies in these areas and our recent results show that a balanced stoichiometry of kinetochore proteins, topology of centromeric chromatin, post-translational modifications of centromeric histones and preventing the mislocalization of Cse4 to non-centromeric chromatin are essential for faithful chromosome segregation in budding yeast. Extrapolation of findings from yeast to humans shows that mislocalization of CENP-A contributes to CIN in human cells.


Project Summary:

We use multi-organismal (yeast, mouse and human cells) and multi-disciplinary (genetic, cell biology, biochemical and genome-wide) approaches to study faithful chromosome segregation, a fundamental process of every living cell. Genetic screens served as a starting point and in-depth mechanistic studies have provided evidence for new roles for kinetochore genes and the identification of new kinetochore genes. We also identified and defined roles for post-translational modifications (acetylation, methylation, phosphorylation, sumoylation and ubiquitination) of Cse4 in chromosome segregation. Our current research is aimed at understanding the role of Cse4-associated proteins in chromosome segregation and defining pathways that prevent mislocalization of Cse4 to non-centromeric regions.


In the first project we have defined roles for Scm3, Pat1, Cdc5 and Sgo1 for the assembly of centromeric chromatin and characterized role of post-translational modifications of centromeric histones in faithful chromosome segregation. Our results show that imbalanced stoichiometry of a Cse4 chaperone, Scm3 (HJURP in humans) leads to chromosome mis-segregation in both human and yeast cells thereby providing a link between HJURP overexpression and mitotic defects in cancers (Mishra et al., 2011). Scm3 interacts with Pat1 (Protein associated with topoisomerase II) and we have shown that Pat1 regulates the topology of centromeric chromatin (Mishra et al., 2013). We used a pat1 deletion strain to define the number of Cse4 molecules at the yeast kinetochore (Haase, Mishra 2013, Mishra et al., 2015) and provided evidence for a structural role for Pat1 in the structural integrity of centromeric chromatin and localization of Cse4 for faithful chromosome segregation. In addition to kinetochore proteins, association of cohesins with centromeres and along the length of the chromosomes ensures faithful segregation of sister chromatids during mitosis. We have shown that evolutionarily conserved polo kinase, Cdc5 associates with centromeric chromatin to facilitate the removal of centromeric cohesins (Mishra et al., 2016) and Cdc5-mediated phosphorylation of Cse4 regulates faithful chromosome segregation (Mishra et al., 2019). Furthermore, we determined that evolutionarily conserved Sgo1 which protects centromeric cohesion interacts with Cse4 and this is required for faithful chromosome segregation (Mishra et al., 2018). Our recent studies have shown that accumulation of R-loops at centromeric chromatin reduces the levels of centromeric Cse4 and Scm3 and contributes to chromosomal instability (Mishra et al., 2021).  Biochemical approaches have allowed us to provide a comprehensive analysis of Post-translational modifications (PTMs) of Cse4. Conserved sites for acetylation, methylation, and phosphorylation were identified in Cse4 (Boeckmann et al., 2013). We determined that evolutionarily conserved Aurora B/Ipl1 kinase phosphorylates Cse4 in vivo and in vitro for faithful chromosome segregation. We provided the first evidence that yeast centromeres contain hypoacetylated histone H4 and that increased acetylation of histone H4 on lysine 16 (H4K16) leads to chromosome mis-segregation (Choy et al., 2011). Even though HDAC inhibitors (HDACi) are used in clinical trials we do not fully understand their mode of action. Hence, we performed a genome-wide screen with an HDACi to identify pathways that are vulnerable to altered histone acetylation. Our results showed that chromosome segregation mutants are more sensitive to HDACi (Choy et al., 2015). Future studies will allow us to understand the molecular role of PTMs of Cse4 in chromosome segregation and determine if these PTMs are conserved in human CENP-A.


In the second project we have focused on the identification of pathways that prevent mislocalization of Cse4 (CENP-A in humans) and CIN in yeast and human cells. For budding yeast, we showed previously that S. cerevisiae spt4 mutants show mislocalization of Cse4 and chromosome segregation defects that are complemented by human SPT4 (Basrai et al, 1996 and Crotti and Basrai 2004). We established the cause and effect of Cse4 mislocalization by showing that altered histone dosage and mislocalization of Cse4 to non-centromeric chromatin correlate with chromosome loss (Au et al., 2008, 2013). We determined that the N-terminus of Cse4 is required for ubiquitin-mediated proteolysis of Cse4 by E3 ligase Psh1 (Au et al., 2013). Our laboratory provided the first evidence for sumoylation of Cse4 and showed that ubiquitination of sumoylated Cse4 by Slx5 regulates its proteolysis to prevent mislocalization to euchromatin (Ohkuni et al., 2016, 2018). We have now defined a role for sumoylation of the N-terminus and C-terminus of Cse4 in localization to chromatin (Ohkuni et al., 2018, 2020). Genome-wide approaches used to identify regulators that prevent mislocalization of Cse4 identified a role for histone chaperones (Ciftci-Yilmaz et al., 2018). F-box proteins Cdc4 and Met30 (Au et al., 2020) and Dbf4 dependent kinase (DDK) (Eisenstatt et al., 2020) in proteolysis of Cse4. We recently showed that reduced gene dosage of histone H4 prevents mislocalization of Cse4 and CIN (Eisenstatt et al., 2021). Our ongoing studies are aimed at in-depth analysis of the yeast genes identified in the screen to understand the molecular mechanisms that prevent mislocalization of Cse4 for chromosomal stability.


For studies with human CENP-A we optimized cell biology-based assays to address a long-standing question of whether mislocalization of overexpressed CENP-A contributes to CIN.  Given the clinical significance of high CENP-A expression and its correlation with cancer, it is critical to understand how CENP-A overexpression contributes to tumorigenesis and whether CENP-A expression can be exploited for prognosis, diagnosis and targeted treatment of CENP-A overexpressing cancers. We determined that constitutive or inducible expression of CENP-A in HeLa and stable diploid RPE1 cells results in mislocalization of CENP-A to non-centromeric regions. Comprehensive analysis for mitotic effects showed a dose-dependent effect of CENP-A overexpression on chromosome segregation defects and higher incidence of micronuclei. Our studies provide the first evidence for how mislocalization of CENP-A to non-centromeric chromatin contributes to CIN in human cells and provide mechanistic insights into how CENP-A overexpression may contribute to aneuploidy in CENP-A overexpressing cancers (Shrestha et al., 2017). We have now established that mislocalization of overexpressed CENP-A contributes to aneuploidy with karyotypic heterogeneity in human cells and mouse xenograft model (Shrestha et al., 2021). Human homologs of the yeast genes identified in genome wide screens show that evolutionary conservation of pathways that prevent mislocalization of CENP-A for genome stability. Studies with a transgenic mouse models are being pursued to examine the role of CENP-A overexpression in vivo.  In summary, our studies using multi-organismal and multi-disciplinary approaches will provide mechanistic insights for how defects in kinetochore function contribute to aneuploidy in human cancers. We are optimistic that our studies will help translate basic science research to the clinic and aid in the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of cancers that show overexpression of CENP-A.

NIH Scientific Focus Areas:
Cancer Biology, Cell Biology, Chromosome Biology, Genetics and Genomics, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
View Dr. Basrai's PubMed Summary.

Selected Recent Publications

  1. Shrestha RL, Rossi A, Wangsa D, Hogan AK, Zaldana KS, Suva E, Chung YJ, Sanders CL, Difilippantonio S, Karpova TS, Karim B, Foltz DR, Fachinetti D, Aplan PD, Ried T, Basrai MA
    Journal of Cell Biology. 220(4): 2021. [ Journal Article ]
  2. Mishra PK, Chakraborty A, Yeh E, Feng W, Bloom KS, Basrai MA
    Molecular Biology of the Cell. 32(1): 74-89, 2020. [ Journal Article ]
  3. Au WC, Zhang T, Mishra PK, Eisenstatt JR, Walker RL, Ocampo J, Dawson A, Warren J, Costanzo M, Baryshnikova A, Flick K, Clark DJ, Meltzer PS, Baker RE, Myers C, Boone C, Kaiser P, Basrai MA.
    PLoS Genetics. 16(2): e1008597, 2020. [ Journal Article ]
  4. Ohkuni K, Takahashi Y, Fulp A, Lawrimore J, Au WC, Pasupala N, Levy-Myers R, Warren J, Strunnikov A, Baker RE, Kerscher O, Bloom K, Basrai MA.
    Molecular Biology of the Cell. 27(9): 1500-1510, 2016. [ Journal Article ]
  5. Choy JS, O'Toole E, Schuster BM, Crisp MJ, Karpova TS, McNally JG, Winey M, Gardner MK, Basrai MA.
    Molecular Biology of the Cell. 24(17): 2753-63, 2013. [ Journal Article ]

Dr. Basrai received her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and did her postdoctoral research with Dr. Philip Hieter in the jDepartment of Molecular Biology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Maryland. Dr. Basrai joined the Genetics Branch at the NCI in 1998 and was promoted to tenure in 2006.  Her research interests are genome stability and cell cycle regulation in yeast and human cancers.  Dr. Basrai  co-chairs the Cell Cycle Interest Group since 2005 and serves on the steering committee for the Center of Excellence of Chromosome Biology (CECB) since 2007.  Dr. Basrai served on the Cancer Advisory Board for three years (2008-2011). Dr. Basrai  has received the NIH Director’s Award and the NIH Award for Outstanding Mentorship towards the education of post-baccalaureate trainees. Her trainees have recieved numerous awards such as NIH Fellows Award for Excellence in Research and exceptional pay increase. 

Name Position
Wei-Chun Au Ph.D. Research Biologist
Loran Gliford B.S. Postbaccalaureate Fellow (CRTA)
Pushkar Malakar Ph.D. Postdoctoral Fellow (Visiting)
Prashant Mishra Ph.D. Staff Scientist
Kentaro Ohkuni Ph.D. Research Fellow
Roshan Shrestha Ph.D. Research Fellow
Mai Tran B.S. Program Specialist
Bridget Todd Hughes Post-bac fellow 1999-2001

Director, Research and Science, Senior Vice President of Health Sciences, Research Unit, University of Utah.

Reuben Lewy-Myers Summer Intern 2017-2019

Graduate (Ph D) student, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD

Lars Boekmann Post doctoral fellow 2010-2015
  1. Head of Research Laboratory at Clinic for Dermatology and Venereology, University Medical Center Rostock, Germany



Mae Staples Post bac fellow 2015-2016

Graduate student (Ph, D) Brown University, Rhode Island

Grace Sora Ahn Post-bac fellow 2017

MD student, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA

Tianyi Zhang Research Fellow 2015-2018

Senior Scientist, Kelly Government Solutions, MD

Evelyn Suva Post-bac fellow 2018-2020

Graduate student (Ph. D), Northwestern University, Chicago

John Choy Research Fellow 2006-2013

Associate Professor with tenure, Catholic University, Washington DC


Sultan Ciftci Postdoctoral Fellow 2009-2011

Senior Scientist, Merck, San Francisco.


Yoshimitsu Takahashi Research Fellow 2008-2011
Associate Director, Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, Japan


James Kastenmayer Post-doctoral Fellow 2004-2006

General Counsel (Head of Legal Affairs)  Viela Bio, Maryland


Andrew Hong Post-bac fellow 2005

Pediatric Hematology Oncology Specialistat Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts


Suveena Sharma Research Fellow 2005-2008

Biologist, Lab of Immiunology, NIAID, NIH, Bethesda


Jessica Eisenstatt Post-doctoral fellow 2016-2020

 Interagency Oncology Task Force (IOTF) Fellow of NCI at Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Oliver Kerscher Postdoctoral Fellow 2000-2003

Associate Professor, wiith tenure, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA


Oliver Kercher-Exceptional Pay Increase Award (2002)

Lauren DIttman-Poster Award NIH Postbac Day (2014)

John Choy-NIH Fellows Award for Excellence in Research (2011, 2012)

Lars Boeckmann-NIH Fellows Award for Excellence in Research (2013, 2014)

Mae Staples-Poster Award for NIH Postbac Day (2016)

Ziad Jowhar-Best talk Award, South Eastern Regional Yeast Meeting (2016)

Oliver Kerscher-Exceptional Pay Increase (2003)