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Med Epigenet. 2014;2(1):53-59.

Investigating Epigenetic Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Toxic Metals in Newborns: Challenges and Benefits.

Author information

1
Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27599 ; Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC 27705.
2
Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, 27599.
3
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC 27705 ; Department of Biological Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695.
4
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC 27705.

Abstract

Increasing evidence suggest that epigenetic alterations can greatly impact human health, and that epigenetic mechanisms (DNA methylation, histone modifications, and microRNAs) may be particularly relevant in responding to environmental toxicant exposure early in life. The epigenome plays a vital role in embryonic development, tissue differentiation and disease development by controlling gene expression. In this review we discuss what is currently known about epigenetic alterations in response to prenatal exposure to inorganic arsenic (iAs) and lead (Pb), focusing specifically on their effects on DNA methylation. We then describe how epigenetic alterations are being studied in newborns as potential biomarkers of in utero environmental toxicant exposure, and the benefits and challenges of this approach. In summary, the studies highlighted herein indicate how epigenetic mechanisms are impacted by early life exposure to iAs and Pb, and the research that is being done to move towards understanding the relationships between toxicant-induced epigenetic alterations and disease development. Although much remains unknown, several groups are working to understand the correlative and causal effects of early life toxic metal exposure on epigenetic changes and how these changes may result in later development of disease.

KEYWORDS:

Arsenic; DNA methylation; epigenetics; lead; prenatal exposure

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