Long-term environmental exposure to microcystins increases the risk of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in humans: A combined fisher-based investigation and murine model study

Yanyan Zhao, Yunjun Yan, Liqiang Xie, Lixiao Wang, Yaojia He, Xiang Wan, Qingju Xue
Environment International 2020 March 14, 138: 105648
Microcystins (MCs) produced by cyanobacteria pose serious threats to human health. However, the contribution of long-term exposure to MCs to the development of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) remains poorly documented. In this study, we estimated the environmental uptake of MCs by a small population of fishers who have lived for many years on Meiliang Bay of Lake Taihu, where cyanobacterial blooms occur frequently. Serum biochemical indices of liver function and their relationships with MC contamination in these people were also investigated. Moreover, to mimic the long-term effects of MC on the livers of fishers, an animal model was established in which mice were exposed to MC-LR at an environmentally relevant level, a reference level (the no-observed adverse effect level, NOAEL), and three times the NOAEL through drinking water for 12 months. We estimated the total daily intake of MCs by fishers through contaminated lake water and food to be 5.95 μg MC-LReq, far exceeding the tolerable daily intake (2.40 μg MC-LReq) proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO). More than 80% of participants had at least one abnormal serum marker. The indices of aspartate aminotransferase (AST)/alanine aminotransferase (ALT), triglyceride (TG), globulin (GLB), and lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) had close positive associations with MC contamination, indicating that both liver damage and lipid metabolism dysfunction were induced by chronic MC exposure. Furthermore, the animal experimental results showed that long-term exposure to MC-LR at the environmentally relevant level led to hepatic steatosis with molecular alterations in circadian rhythm regulation, lipid metabolic processes, and the cell cycle pathway. Exposure to MC-LR at or above the NOAEL worsened the pathological phenotype towards nonalcoholic steatohepatitis disease (NASH) or fibrosis. These results suggest that prolonged exposure to the reference level (NOAEL) of MC-LR could cause severe liver injury to mammals. People with long-term environmental exposure to MCs might be at high risk for developing NAFLD.

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