Superfund Research Program

July 2020

Metals Epigenetics Symposium poster
The symposium included 15-minute presentations on a wide-range of metals and epigenetic studies, followed by a rich discussion on ways to collaborate and share data.
(Image courtesy of the Columbia SRP Center)

In a virtual symposium, NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) grantees and colleagues shared research findings and discussed leveraging data to learn how metal exposures can lead to epigenetic changes.

Exposure to chemicals can affect health by altering the epigenome, which is made up of compounds and proteins that can turn genes on or off without changing the underlying sequence of DNA. Several metals, including arsenic and mercury, are known to alter the epigenome, but the different ways in which metals can do this is not well understood.

The symposium was co-hosted by the University of California (UC), Berkeley and the Columbia University SRP Centers. A recording of the full symposium is available on Youtube.

“As scientists, we are generating a lot of data,” said Ana Navas-Acien, M.D., Ph.D., the Columbia SRP Center director and co-host of the meeting. “We planned this symposium so that we could come together and start discussing what we are learning, what the challenges are, and how to best extract information from our data.”

In addition to seven presentations by SRP grantees and colleagues, the symposium featured an open discussion focused on analysis methods for epigenetics data. Participants discussed ways to incorporate information about metal mixtures into epigenetic analysis and how to assess data from different studies to make better conclusions.

Pooling data on single metals to explore how exposure to mixtures of metals may lead to epigenetic changes was also discussed. Participants highlighted the potential interplay between essential and nonessential metals. They also discussed concerns with reproducibility in epidemiology studies and emphasized the need for epidemiologists to work with toxicologists to study epigenetic effects in cells and animal models.

“Data might be used in the future in ways we can’t anticipate today,” said Navas-Acien. She described how new tools enable researchers to better understand and share data but they should also protect personal information.

The symposium stemmed from an SRP administrative supplement between the UC Berkeley and Columbia SRP Centers focused on ways to integrate metal and epigenetic data generated from the centers.

“We are going through this exercise with our SRP Centers to integrate data so we can make better inferences about how metals affect health,” said Andres Cardenas, Ph.D., co-host and UC Berkeley SRP grantee. “We are very interested in forming new collaborations across our centers.”