Could exposure to air pollution change your genetic makeup? A new study seems to suggest that it does.
In a new paper, researchers at the University of British Columbia looked for genetic changes that occurred when humans were exposed to air pollution. For the study, researchers recruited volunteers to sit in a walled-in aquarium filled with smog-like pollution. Researchers attempted to emulate the pollution levels found in the world's most polluted cities; however they used diesel exhaust only and not the particulate matter pollution found in most cities' pollution. Still, the simulated pollution contained plenty of the volatile organic compounds or VOCs and other nasty gases that we encounter.
For the study, participants sat in smog rooms for two-hour periods. They reportedly knew what they were doing and what they were getting into — although one has to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to the very thing so many of us seek to avoid, even in the name of science. Researchers took two blood samples from the participants, one after the participants had been in the aquarium breathing filtered air for two hours and again when they had been in the room for two hours when it was filled with pollution.
The study found that while the DNA in each participant's sample pair was identical, the DNA methylation patterns — the layer of methyl molecules over DNA that work to turn genes on or off — changed after the volunteers sat in the smog-filled room.
Researchers were quick to point out that it is unclear what long-term effects this change in the methylation pattern could have on human health. It could have no effect at all, or it could be the tipping point in a process that triggers cancer, asthma, inflammation or behavioral disorders. The results may have been subtle, but researchers note that the results were consistent, and statistically significant. Roughly 400 of the 50,000 genes examined were methylated differently after the participants were exposed to the pollution. It may not seem like a lot, but then again, this was after only two hours of exposure to simulated pollution.
The next step for researchers will be to look at each of those altered gene patterns and try to understand what effect the change might have on human health. If they can unlock that mystery, they might finally begin to understand the effect that the air we breathe has on our very DNA.
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