Peter Stirling

Associate Professor

Research Classification

Research Interests

Biological and Biochemical Mechanisms
cancer genetics
DNA repair
Genome Instability
Molecular Genetics
Stress responses

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs


Research Methodology

cell culture
DNA repair


Doctoral students
Postdoctoral Fellows
I support public scholarship, e.g. through the Public Scholars Initiative, and am available to supervise students and Postdocs interested in collaborating with external partners as part of their research.
I am open to hosting Visiting International Research Students (non-degree, up to 12 months).
I am interested in hiring Co-op students for research placements.

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These videos contain some general advice from faculty across UBC on finding and reaching out to a potential thesis supervisor.

Great Supervisor Week Mentions

Each year graduate students are encouraged to give kudos to their supervisors through social media and our website as part of #GreatSupervisorWeek. Below are students who mentioned this supervisor since the initiative was started in 2017.


Here's to @pcstirling for supporting all of us, challenging us, and making us better scientists everyday!

Stirling Lab (2017)


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Proliferating cell nuclear antigen ubiquitination as a central regulator of transcriptional stress (2023)

DNA replication is a vulnerable time for genome stability maintenance. Endogenous add oncogenic stressors can challenge replication by fostering conflicts with transcription and stabilizing DNA:RNA hybrids called R-loops. The capacity for unscheduled R-loops to collapse stalled replication forks and induce genome instability has become apparent. In this work, I provide an overview of the causes and cellular responses to replication stress, detailing the importance of replication checkpoint signaling, replication fork remodelling, and the clinical relevance to cancer development. Recently progress has been made towards identifying R-loop and conflict regulators, however, our understanding of this regulation is incomplete. Building off past findings that utilized a genome-wide interaction screen in budding yeast lacking key R-loop degrading RNase H enzymes, I explored a network of potential R-loop tolerance genes. PCNA is a complex replisome component with over 200 binding partners and was identified as a hit alongside RAD18 and ATAD5 (Elg1 homolog), key factors required for PCNA ubiquitin regulation. Once ubiquitinated, PCNA catalyzes several downstream repair pathways. I validated the roles of these genes in R-loop biology, identifying an accumulation of DNA:RNA hybrids in several human cell lines after gene silencing and in conjugation-incompetent PCNA K164R mutants. In both RAD18- and ATAD5-deficient cells, I observed higher levels of replication stress, DNA damage, and transcription-replication conflicts, dependent on R-loops, transcription, and replication. To gain mechanistic insight into how RAD18 tolerates transcriptional stress, I utilized stressors aphidicolin and pladienolide B to stall replication and disrupt the R-loop landscape respectively. I found that RAD18 localization was dependent on these transcriptional stressors and R-loops. I explored the mechanistic connection between RAD18 and members of the Fanconi anemia (FA) pathway, showing DNA:RNA hybrid epistasis. RAD18 was important for recruitment of FANCD2, the key effector molecule with established roles in resolving R-loop-induced stress, to R-loop prone loci and common fragile sites. These findings expand upon a published connection between RAD18 and the FA pathway by establishing a mechanism involving RAD18 in opposing transcription-associated genome instability through FANCD2 recruitment. The result of my work establishes PCNA ubiquitination as a novel regulatory axis for the tolerance of transcriptional stress.

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The conserved role of RNA splicing factors in genome maintenance (2020)

RNA splicing mutants have been broadly implicated in genome stability, but mechanistic links are often unclear. Two predominant models have emerged: one involving changes in gene expression that perturb other genome maintenance factors and another in which genotoxic DNA:RNA hybrids, called R-loops, impair DNA replication. Recent efforts in whole genome sequencing have identified splicing factor mutations in several cancers, suggesting that splicing disruption may be a common mechanism involved in oncogenesis. To understand how splicing factor mutations contribute to genetic instability (GIN) in budding yeast, I selected strains with mutations in core snRNP complexes involved in establishing the splicing reaction and characterized GIN phenotypes to find that mitotic defects, and in some cases R-loop accumulation, are causes of GIN. I observed evidence of R-loop induced DNA damage in some cases, while all splicing mutants tested caused GIN through aberrant splicing of the TUB1 transcript, the protein product of which, α-tubulin, is critical in forming the mitotic spindle. GIN is exacerbated by loss of the spindle-assembly checkpoint protein Mad1, and moreover, removal of the intron from the α-tubulin gene TUB1 restores genome integrity. To gain functional insights to how HSH155 could influence GIN in the context of cancer progression, I studied five cancer-associated SF3B1 point mutations in the yeast ortholog HSH155. While the splicing activity in Hsh155 and SF3B1 were conserved, I did not observe measurable phenotypes in the yeast mutant strains. Thus, I used isogenic NALM6 human leukemia cell lines to investigate how a specific SF3B1 hotspot mutation, H662Q contributes to GIN. My data indicate that GIN occurs in two ways: 1) by induction of R-loop-mediated replication stress either directly or indirectly through suboptimal expression of an R-loop modulating factor, and 2) aberrant splicing of the multifunctional protein DYNLL1, which may potentially perturb double strand break repair pathway choice. The results of my study show how differing penetrance and selective effects on the transcriptome in yeast and human splicing factors contribute to GIN through R-loop accumulation and altered gene expression, adding to a growing body of evidence that splicing factors play a key role in genome maintenance across species.

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Genome instability in multiple myeloma-associated DIS3 exonuclease domain mutants (2019)

Chromosome instability (CIN) is characterized by an increased rate of the unequal distribution of DNA between daughter cells. Such changes in chromosome structure or number can occur due to both mitotic defects leading to aneuploidy and DNA damage-induced chromosome rearrangements. Previous large-scale screens for CIN genes in the model organism Saccharomyces cerevisiae identified DIS3, which encodes a catalytic component of the core RNA exosome complex, as a novel CIN gene. Mutations in human DIS3 have been identified in roughly 11% of multiple myeloma (MM) cases. I sought to recapitulate MM-associated point mutations at conserved sites in yeast cells, in order to understand the mechanism of emergent CIN in MM. I have found that MM-associated DIS3 exonuclease mutations do increase the frequency of CIN. A temperature sensitive DIS3 mutant accumulates DNA:RNA hybrids, however analysis of DNA damage foci by microscopy revealed no increase in double-strand breaks in any of the tested strains. Yeast DIS3 exonuclease mutants experience growth retardation, temperature sensitivity, and an altered cell cycle. Microarray analysis of one MM mutant has additionally demonstrated downregulation of cell cycle components, consistent with the potential for mitotic defects, in addition of upregulation of a host of metabolic pathways. Further, genetic interaction profiling by synthetic genetic array indicates MM-associated DIS3 mutations synthetically interact with rRNA processing proteins, as well as a host of mitotic regulators and metabolic pathways, particularly those involved in spindle and kinetochore function. Further, I verify that DIS3 mutants have a functional spindle assembly checkpoint, and are in fact resistant to microtubule poisons. Finally, I discover that the fitness defects induced by these mutations can be abrogated through culturing on media containing only a non-fermentable carbon source, suggesting that growth on poor carbon sources may also rescue CIN.Together, these results demonstrate extensive phenotypic consequences of MM-associated point mutations in DIS3, and support a model for CIN in DIS3 mutants involving defects in mitotic progression.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

RecQ-like helicase SGS1 counteracts DNA:RNA hybrid induced genome instability (2017)

Dividing cells are constantly under threat from both endogenous and exogenous DNA damaging stresses that can lead to mutations and structural variations in DNA. One contributor to genome instability is three-stranded DNA:RNA hybrid structures called R-loops. Though R-loops are known to induce DNA damage and DNA replication stress, it is unclear whether they are recognized and processed by an established DNA repair pathway prior to inducing DNA breaks. Canonically, DNA repair proteins work downstream of R-loop-induced DNA damage to stimulate repair and suppress genome instability. Recently, the possibility that some DNA repair pathways actively destabilize R-loops, thus preventing unscheduled DNA damage has emerged. Here we identify the helicase SGS1 as a suppressor of R-loop stability. Our data reveals that SGS1 depleted cells accumulate R-loops. In addition, we define a role for transcription in genome instability of cells lacking SGS1, which is consistent with an R-loop based mechanism. Hyper-recombination in SGS1 mutants is dependent on transcript length, transcription rate, and active DNA replication. Also, rDNA instability in sgs1Δ can be suppressed by ectopic expression of RNaseH1, a protein that degrades DNA:RNA hybrids. Interestingly, R-loops are known to form at rDNA loci. We favour a model in which SGS1 contributes to the stabilization of stalled replication forks associated with transcription complexes, and unresolved DNA:RNA hybrids. Finally, we showed that knockdown of the human Sgs1 orthologue BLM in HCT116 cells also led to the accumulation of more R-loops than control HCT116 cells. In summary, our data supports the idea that some DNA repair proteins involved in replication fork stabilization might also prevent and process R-loops.

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Synthetic hypermutation: gene-drug mutation rate synergy reveals a translesion synthesis mechanism (2017)

Gene-gene or gene-drug interactions are typically quantified using fitness as a readout because the data is continuous and easily measured in high-throughput. However, to what extent fitness captures the range of other phenotypes that show synergistic effects is usually unknown. Using Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and focusing on a matrix of DNA repair mutants and genotoxic drugs, I quantified 76 gene-drug interactions based on both mutation rate and fitness and find that these parameters are not connected. Independent of fitness defects I identified seven cases of synthetic hypermutation, where the combined effect of the drug and mutant on mutation rate was greater than predicted. One example occurred when yeast lacking RAD1 were exposed to cisplatin and I characterized this interaction using whole-genome sequencing. Our sequencing results indicate mutagenesis by cisplatin in rad1∆ cells depended almost entirely on interstrand crosslinks at GpCpN motifs. Interestingly, our data suggest that the 3’ base in this motif templates the addition of the mutated base. This result differs from cisplatin mutation signatures in XPF-deficient C. elegans and supports a model in which translesion synthesis polymerases perform a slippage and realignment extension across from the damaged base. Accordingly, DNA polymerase zeta activity was essential for mutagenesis in cisplatin-treated rad1∆ cells. Together these data reveal the potential to gain new mechanistic insights from non-fitness measures of gene-drug interactions and extend the use of mutation accumulation and whole-genome sequencing analysis to define DNA repair mechanisms.

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