[Epigenetics and environmental exposure to xenobiotics]

B Ficociello, E Sturchio, C Minoia, L Casorri, P Imbriani, S Signorini
Giornale Italiano di Medicina del Lavoro Ed Ergonomia 2010, 32 (1): 13-22
Environmental pollution, together with predisposing genetic factors, plays a key role in determining short and long-term adverse effects on human health. In the industrialized countries the identification of etiology related to diseases of environmental origin has then become a research of priority interest. With regard to this, it has been widely demonstrated that different chemical compounds, such as endocrine disruptors, are able to modify the epigenetic characteristics of a human being. According to recent studies, the paradigm "genotype is strongly correlated with a phenotype" is changing in favor of the concept that a phenotype is defined by a "genotype and by an epigenome". Thus, there is a genotype identical for all cells associated to the epigenome that causes changes in gene expression without modifying the nucleotide sequence of the genome, through alterations in DNA methylation, histone modifications and the pathway of small non-coding RNAs. The epigenome is easily affected by different factors, such as aberrations of normal epigenetic processes that can be caused by environmental factors as exposure to xenobiotics, social behavior and nutritional deficiencies. Epigenetic changes are thus a biological response to environmental stress factors and may be transmitted to the offspring. As the elimination of the environmental factor determines the possible reversion of epigenetic modifications, it seems not to play a role in the natural selection process. However, epigenetic aberrations affect gene expression by interfering with the stability and survival of cells and with the inactivation of onco-suppressor genes. Thus, it is of considerable interest to investigate about the possible elements of induction of epigenetic processes in order to implement prevention protocols. Moreover, the gene expression screening through high through-put techniques like microarray, represent a new tool for the identification of new epigenetic indicators in order to monitor the early biological effects on the population exposed to xenobiotics.

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