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Female immune system is protected from effects of prenatal exposure to mercury

1 Department of Pathology, Microbiology, and Immunology University of South Carolina, School of Medicine, Columbia, South Carolina, USA;
2 Department of Drug Discovery and Biomedical Sciences, South Carolina College of Pharmacy, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, USA

Special Issues: Systems Biology and Prenatal Exposure

Mercury is a ubiquitous environmental toxicant which bioaccumulates and has many biological effects, including detrimental effects on the nervous and immune systems. Because mercury can cross the placenta and concentrates in the fetal compartment, the developing fetus is particularly vulnerable. We hypothesize that developmental exposure to mercury will cause immunological changes, leading to an increased susceptibility to, or exacerbation of, immune disorders later in life. To better understand these changes, we exposed pregnant female mice to low doses of mercury for a short duration and examined the genetic effects related to immune function in the adult offspring. Pregnant BALB/c mice were exposed to mercury (200 µg/kg HgCl2 in PBS by subcutaneous injection) or vehicle control every other day from gestation day 5 to 15. Offspring remained with the dam until weaning and were euthanized at 8 weeks of age with no further exposures to mercury. Splenic RNA was isolated and gene expression changes examined by microarray in a non-random subset of samples and changes confirmed by quantitative PCR. Epigenetic changes were also examined in terms of miRNA levels in the spleen. Although male and female offspring were exposed to mercury in the same in utero environment, the effects on expression of immune-related genes and immune-regulatory epigenetic signals were different dependent upon the sex of the offspring with males, but not females, displaying up-regulation at least two-fold of arginase, interferon-γ, STAT1, vitronectin, and TNFSF18. Epigenetic changes in miRNA levels were differentially expressed in males and females with in utero mercury exposure; miR-191-5p was decreased in males, while miR-1188-3p was increased in females. These gene expression and gene regulation changes modulate the baseline immune response and may impact risks for autoimmunity later in life.
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Keywords prenatal exposure; mercury; epigenetic; miRNA; arginase; vitronectin

Citation: Kayla L. Penta, Diego Altomare, Devon L. Shirley, Jennifer F. Nyland. Female immune system is protected from effects of prenatal exposure to mercury. AIMS Environmental Science, 2015, 2(3): 448-463. doi: 10.3934/environsci.2015.3.448

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