Unveiling the Epigenetic Impact of Formaldehyde: A Hazardous Environmental Pollutant

A global team of researchers has unveiled a groundbreaking revelation regarding formaldehyde, a pervasive environmental pollutant and a common metabolite in the human body. Contrary to its previous characterization solely as a DNA mutagen, formaldehyde has been found to disrupt the epigenetic programming of cells, establishing a deeper link with cancer. Dr. Lucas Pontel, group leader at the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute, and Dr. Manel Esteller, group leader and director of the institution, collaborated on the published paper in Science.

Epigenetics, the chemical mechanisms controlling gene activity, enables cells, tissues, and organs to adapt to environmental changes. However, this advantage becomes a potential drawback, as epigenetic regulation is more susceptible to toxin-induced alterations compared to the stable genetic sequence of DNA. These alterations can show up as changes in DNA methylation patterns and histone modifications, impacting the regulation of gene expression and potentially contributing to adverse health effects.

In previous posts, we demonstrated the impact of air pollutants on modifying specific histone marks and highlighted the association between exposure to diesel exhaust fumes and changes in DNA methylation. Additionally, we explored the connection between a widely used gardening pesticide, known to be linked to cancer, and its role in triggering heritable epigenetic changes that may lead to health consequences across generations.

In this study, co-authors Dr. Manel Esteller and Dr. Lucas Pontel emphasize formaldehyde’s potent role as a modifier of normal epigenetic patterns. Present in household and cosmetic products, polluted air, and widely used in construction, formaldehyde has a significant impact on cellular epigenetics.

The lead author of the publication is Dr. Christopher J. Chang from the University of California Berkeley, whose research group pioneers the study of various chemical products’ effects on cell metabolism. The research focused on investigating the effects of elevated formaldehyde concentrations in the body, a substance previously linked to an increased risk of cancer, hepatic degeneration, and asthma. Dr. Esteller emphasizes the relevance, stating, “Formaldehyde enters our body primarily through breathing and, being water-soluble, reaches all our cells.”

Dr. Esteller further notes that formaldehyde is concentrated in products used in construction, furniture, textiles, and certain hair products. Dr. Pontel adds that it’s not only an environmental hazard but is also generated within our bodies through the metabolism of common substances like the sweetener aspartame. He stresses that our cells continually produce formaldehyde, a known mutagen that can lead to cancer.

Summarizing the research, Dr. Esteller reveals that formaldehyde inhibits the MAT1A protein, the main producer of S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAM), a universal donor of the methyl group regulating epigenetic activity. Exposure to formaldehyde reduces SAM content, causing the loss of histone methylation, which controls the function of thousands of genes.

Dr. Pontel underscores the more concerning aspect of formaldehyde’s toxicity. “We have discovered that formaldehyde has the capacity to modify the epigenetic landscape of our cells, contributing to its well-documented carcinogenic properties.”

The toxic agent’s impact on epigenetic changes could directly contribute to the development of diseases mentioned earlier beyond its recognized mutagenic properties. Dr. Esteller notes that global health authorities have initiated restrictions on formaldehyde use. However, elevated levels persist in industries such as resin manufacturing, plastic production, industrial foundries, and cosmetics.

The study will undoubtedly encourage further investigations into formaldehyde’s impact on cellular epigenetics, providing crucial insights into potential health risks and mitigation strategies. The findings emphasize the need to advocate for robust environmental and health policies to reduce formaldehyde exposure, addressing various sources for a healthier environment.

Source: Vanha N. Pham, et al. Formaldehyde regulates S -adenosylmethionine biosynthesis and one-carbon metabolism. Science, November 3, 2023.

Reference: A known environmental hazard can change the epigenetics of cells. Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute. November 2, 2023.

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