How chemical exposure early in life is ‘like a ticking time bomb’

Diet as an adult determined whether mouse pups exposed to BPA developed health problems

newborn mice

NEWBORN REPROGRAMMING Newborn mice exposed to a chemical in plastics during the first five days of life can have very different health outcomes depending on their diets as adults.  


ORLANDO — Being exposed to a chemical early in life can be a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure book: Some things that happen early on may hurt you later, but only if you make certain choices, an unpublished study in mice suggests.

Mouse pups were exposed to the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) for only five days after birth, a crucial time during which mice’s livers develop. BPA, once common in plastics, has been linked to a host of health problems in people, from diabetes to heart disease (SN: 10/11/08, p. 14). But depending on diet as adults, the mice either grew up to be healthy or to have enlarged livers and high cholesterol.

As long as the BPA-exposed mice ate mouse chow for the rest of their lives, the rodents remained healthy, molecular biologist Cheryl Walker of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston reported April 7 at the 2019 Experimental Biology meeting. But researchers switched some BPA-exposed mice to a high-fat diet as adults. Those mice had larger livers, higher cholesterol and more metabolic problems than mice who ate a high-fat diet but were not exposed to BPA as pups, Walker said.

BPA exposure immediately altered epigenetic marks at more than 5,400 genes, including 3,000 involved in aging. Epigenetic marks are chemical tags on DNA or on histones — protein around which DNA winds in a cell — that don’t change information in genes themselves, but affect gene activity.

Some genes with histone epigenetic marks that were reprogrammed early in life are like “ticking time bombs that remain silent until a later life challenge,” Walker said. For instance, BPA altered histone marks on the EGR1 gene in mouse pups, but activity of the gene didn’t change unless mice ate a high-fat diet as adults. That gene helps control metabolism.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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