By Henry Ehrlich
A new study by researchers in British Columbia has connected the dots between exposure to diesel fumes and the way genes do or don’t do their work, and moreover they have timed the effects. In just about the time it takes to sit through The Imitation Game, they detected changes in methylation at 2,800 points on the “coating” of about 400 genes. Methylation and demethylation affect gene expression–turning the genes on and off–part of the science of epigenetics.
Published in Particle and Fibre Toxicology*, as reported in Science Daily, “The study involved putting volunteers in a polycarbonate-enclosed booth — about the size of a standard bathroom — while breathing in diluted and aged exhaust fumes that are about equal to the air quality along a Beijing highway, or a busy port in British Columbia.”
We have been following the subjects of epigenetics and diesel fumes, aka black carbon, and the effect on asthma, for years. First it was Dr. Kari Nadeau’s study of asthma rates in two California communities, one with dirty air and one with clean. Then it was in Paul’s coverage of a talk by Matt Perzanowski, PhD, of Columbia on the asthma rates in various New York City neighborhoods and their proximity to highways and buildings that are heated with dirty “residual oil.” Larry has written repeatedly about the extent of diesel particulates and their effects on asthma rates where he has long practiced. Anne K. Ellis, MD and Michelle L. North wrote about allergies developing in the womb. And so on.
This study raises the game. The specific mechanisms of 400 genes being turned on and off at 2,800 and their effect on individual human health will be hard to measure. Lead researcher Dr. Chris Carlsten, an associate professor in the Division of Respiratory Medicine, at the University of British Columbia says, “Usually when we look at the effects of air pollution, we measure things that are clinically obvious — air flow, blood pressure, heart rhythm. But asthma, higher blood pressure or arrhythmia might just be the gradual accumulation of epigenetic changes. So we’ve revealed a window into how these long-term problems arise. We’re looking at changes ‘deep under the hood.'”
He does, however, sound a hopeful note: “Any time you can show something happens that quickly, it means you can probably reverse it — either through a therapy, a change in environment, or even diet.”
* Ruiwei Jiang, Meaghan J Jones, Francesco Sava, Michael S Kobor, Christopher Carlsten. Short-term diesel exhaust inhalation in a controlled human crossover study is associated with changes in DNA methylation of circulating mononuclear cells in asthmatics. Particle and Fibre Toxicology, 2014; 11