Non-homologous end joining (NHEJ) is a major repair pathway for DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs), which is the most toxic DNA damage in cells. Unrepaired DSBs can cause genome instability, tumorigenesis or cell death. DNA end synapsis is the first and probably the most important step of the NHEJ pathway, aiming to bring two broken DNA ends close together and provide structural stability for end processing and ligation. This process is mediated through a group of NHEJ proteins forming higher-order complexes, to recognise and bridge two DNA ends. Spatial and temporal understanding of the structural mechanism of DNA-end synapsis has been largely advanced through recent structural and single-molecule studies of NHEJ proteins. This review focuses on core NHEJ proteins that mediate DNA end synapsis through their unique structures and interaction properties, as well as how they play roles as anchor and linker proteins during the process of ‘bridge over troubled ends'.

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