September 11, 2019

Axel Berky (Duke University)

Intergenerational response to chronic trace metal exposure by altering protein expression

Graduate Student Award in Social and Biological Determinants of Health

For a million years, humans have been exposed to heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Exposure to metals varies greatly based on geology, diet and cultural practices. Populations living with low, but constant exposures to metals may have caused them to evolve biological mechanisms to minimize the harmful health effects from these toxic compounds. Such adaptations have already been identified in a population in the Chilean Atacama Desert and has been proposed for human populations living in the Andes Mountains.

Similar adaptations have also been found in fish exposed to pollutants that led to improved resistance to toxicity but reduced cardiac output, resulting in a health trade-off. In order to better understand how different populations respond to low, constant metal exposures, we propose to measure metabolite profiles across three different ethnic groups in Peru. Metabolites are compounds in the body that reflect an individual’s health status, such as insulin, and can be used to measure harmful effects from metal exposures. Certain metabolites have also been associated with long term health outcomes such as chronic kidney disease and cardiovascular disease. By measuring metabolites across ethnic backgrounds, we hope to learn if populations have differentially evolved to mitigate health effects from toxic metal exposures and how these adaptions influence health trajectories. This study will improve our knowledge on the prevalence of evolutionary adaptations to metals and better evaluate their health implications, thus providing a more individualized healthcare by integrating evolutionary histories in public health.