Nearly 50 North Carolina-based scientists interested in the interplay of genetics and the environment gathered at the 2018 fall meeting of the North Carolina Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS), a regional scientific society headquartered in Research Triangle Park.
The day-long meeting, held Nov. 7 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, focused on elements that regulate how genes are turned off and on. The meeting kicked off with a talk on the effects of air pollution on cells, given by Shaun McCullough, Ph.D., from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Public Health Division. McCullough underscored the importance of his research with a startling statistic from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Air pollution is deadly
“In 2012, one in eight of the total deaths in the world — or seven million deaths — were a result of air pollution,” he said. “This [WHO] finding confirms that air pollution is the world’s largest single environmental health risk.”
McCullough explained that there is still much we do not know about how air pollution affects our bodies. His lab explores questions such as how air pollution might lead to epigenetic modifications within the genome. Epigenetic changes modify the way genetic information is expressed without directly changing the underlying genetic code. This is an area of increasing interest for environmental health scientists.
Epigenetic modifications work by adding and removing small chemical tags to the underlying genetic code. They tell the genome which genes should be switched off or on. “We know that epigenetic modifications have a direct role in the regulation of gene expression in response to a toxicant or environmental exposure,” McCullough said.
His lab has compared cells exposed to air pollution with those exposed to clean air in a novel cell culture system that more closely resembles a functional human airway. The researchers observed that the expression of certain genes occurs after epigenetic modifications throughout the genome, which is collectively known as the epigenome. Work in his lab is ongoing to dive deeper into how this happens.
Mitochondrial diseases and the epigenome
Next up was the National Toxicology Program’s own Janine Santos, Ph.D., who discussed her work on rotenone and health impacts. Rotenone is a naturally occurring compound that has been used as a potent insecticide. It changes a cell’s ability to produce energy by affecting the mitochondria.
“Mitochondria are the metabolic hub of the cell, responsible for all the energy that gets produced,” Santos said. Many common diseases show dysfunction in the mitochondria. She added that mitochondrial genetic disorders can be triggered by anesthesia and viral infections.
Santos’ goal was to learn what happens to the epigenome when mitochondrial function is altered. Her work is ongoing, but she described interesting results that suggest that disrupting the mitochondria with an environmental toxicant may reprogram the epigenome and contribute to changes in health outcomes.
Early-career researchers present talks, posters
Lead organizer and GEMS President-elect Carol Swartz, D.V.M., Ph.D., from Integrated Laboratory Systems, Inc., encouraged audience members to attend the poster session and the afternoon talks by early-career scientists.
The short talks addressed such topics as the epigenome’s sensitivity to cadmium exposure, and what worms can tell us about mitochondrial health.
The final talk, on the impact of tobacco smoke exposure on the epigenome, was by NIEHS postdoctoral fellow Suzanne Martos, Ph.D., from the Environmental Epigenomics and Disease Group. She described the methods she uses the characterize smoking-related changes in immune cells.
Another afternoon talk by Claudio Hidalgo Cantabrana, Ph.D., from North Carolina State University, addressed the widely publicized CRISPR-based technologies. Clustered, regularly interspersed, short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) are part of an immune response mechanism in bacteria that have been adapted for laboratory and medical uses.
Hidalgo Cantabrana shared the history and current status of CRISPR technologies and the impact they have had on science and society.
(Sheena Scruggs, Ph.D., is Digital Outreach Coordinator in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)