Researchers have found a method to ascertain how pollutants and other chemicals we are exposed to affect our body and health, by discovering whether a substance has biological effects in an organism

Chemicals are everywhere. They exist in the water we drink, the food we eat and the environment around us, which are also pollutants.

Chemicals can be absorbed into our bodies, some of which can have negative effects on our health. Some substances are more harmful when combined with others than when we are exposed to them individually, a phenomenon the researchers described as the “cocktail effect”.

This cocktail effect poses a challenge in toxicology; thus, researchers have been looking to predict the effects of exposure to mixtures of many different chemicals.

Researchers from Linköping University in Sweden have applied a method identifying the proteins in the body which can be affected by chemicals, enabling future prediction of exposure effects to combinations of varied chemicals which we consume and are environmentally exposed to.

Over 100,000 chemicals are used in manufacturing, agriculture, industry, and other products we consume

The new approach applied by the LiU researchers is based on a technique developed to study pharmaceuticals, proteome integral solubility alteration, abbreviated as “PISA”. The researchers have examined how the method can be used to identify the proteins from an organism that interact with pollutants and other chemicals.

Published in the Journal of Proteomics, the researchers extracted proteins from zebrafish embryos with aims to obtain proteins from all types of cells in an organism – its proteome. They then mixed the proteome with one or several substances.

The researchers have applied the method on four scenarios: an individual pollutant, a mixture of chemicals, a new bioactive substance, and undesired effects of a new drug.

For instance, they tested the effects of a well-studied environmental toxin, TCDD, and identified several proteins affected by TCDD that were not known from previous studies. The results with this method indicate that analysing the complete proteome of an organism will allow scientists to find more possible molecular interactions between chemicals and proteins.

The researchers highlight that the method can be used to detect at an early stage the undesired biological effects of substances. These effects can then be studied in more detail using other methods.

Chemicals are known to cause many human diseases, as commonly seen with tobacco consumption or exposure to asbestos

Veronica Lizano-Fallas, PhD student in the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences (BKV) at Linköping University said: “Levels of pollutants are continuously increasing, and it is extremely difficult to test the effects of all chemicals.

“It is particularly difficult to test mixtures of substances. I believe that our approach can lead to more efficient use of time and money than traditional methods, which test the effects on one biological mechanism at a time.”

Susana Cristobal, professor in BKV, who led the study, added: “Chemicals interact with proteins in a fairly promiscuous manner, and we often find that several proteins are influenced by the substances we test.

“We see that the functions of proteins are affected by their interactions with chemicals, which is consistent with the effects of pollutants and harmful substances in the cell.”

The research has received financial support from the ERA-NET Marine Biotechnology project CYANOBESITY, co-financed by Formas, and the GOLIATH research project, which is financed by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.


Read the full study here.


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