To unequivocally address their unresolved intimate structures in blood, we scrutinized the size distribution of circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) using whole-genome sequencing (WGS) from both double- and single-strand DNA library preparations (DSP and SSP, n = 7) and using quantitative PCR (Q-PCR, n = 116). The size profile in healthy individuals was remarkably homogenous when using DSP sequencing or SSP sequencing. CfDNA size profile had a characteristic nucleosome fragmentation pattern. Overall, our data indicate that the proportion of cfDNA inserted in mono-nucleosomes, di-nucleosomes, and chromatin of higher molecular size (>1000 bp) can be estimated as 67.5% to 80%, 9.4% to 11.5%, and 8.5% to 21.0%, respectively. Although DNA on single chromatosomes or mono-nucleosomes is detectable, our data revealed that cfDNA is highly nicked (97%–98%) on those structures, which appear to be subjected to continuous nuclease activity in the bloodstream. Fragments analysis allows the distinction of cfDNA of different origins: first, cfDNA size profile analysis may be useful in cfDNA extract quality control; second, subtle but reliable differences between metastatic colorectal cancer patients and healthy individuals vary with the proportion of malignant cell-derived cfDNA in plasma extracts, pointing to a higher degree of cfDNA fragmentation and nuclease activity in samples with high malignant cell cfDNA content.


Cynthia Sanchez, Benoit Roch, Thibault Mazard, Philippe Blache, Zahra Al Amir Dache, Brice Pastor, Ekaterina Pisareva, Rita Tanos, Alain R. Thierry


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