Pollution Changes DNA in Three Days
Polluted air may devastate human DNA to the point of reprogramming genes in just three days, leaving people vulnerable to lung cancer and other diseases, according to a new Italian study.
The researchers, who discovered rapid DNA damage in Italian steel workers who breathed polluted foundry air, say it might happen to anyone living in a large city.
The study examined 63 healthy people who were exposed routinely to particulate matter while they worked in a steel mill in Brescia, Italy, and. The air around steel foundries usually has about 10 times more particulate matter than normal air, and a larger percentage of the particles are metals.
During the work week, two blood DNA samples were taken from the workers, one sample on the first day of the week before they were heavily exposed to the foundry air, and the other sample after several days on the job. A comparison of the samples showed changes in four genes that are believed to suppress tumors.
The workers’ DNA was damaged to the point that the rate of a body process called “methylation” was slowed, the researchers said. Methylation is a normal, ongoing biological process in which genes are organized into different groups. The slowing of methylation in the workers meant that fewer groups and therefore fewer genes were expressed and made into proteins, which is vital to the regular maintenance of the body. Such a reduction also has been observed in the DNA of lung cancer patients.
Study leader Andrea Baccarelli of the University of Milan said previous research has demonstrated that older people in Boston had DNA damage from particulate matter. However, Baccarelli said, “Our results need to be confirmed in air pollution studies before they can be extended to the general population.”
On a hopeful note, the research team raised the possibility that methylation damage can be ameliorated with folic acid, a vitamin found in many foods. “We found that subjects with higher intakes of methyl nutrients were protected from some of the cardiac effects of particulate matter,” Baccarelli said.
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