Environmental Exposure Affects Respiratory Health More Than Inherited Genetics

Researchers in Canada have analysed more than 1.6 million pieces of data to examine the relationships between genetics, environmental factors and respiratory diseases[i].

Genetic and health data from participants from various parts of Quebec were combined with data regarding environmental factors such as air pollution to investigate how these factors impact the function of genes. The participants were some of the 300,000 Canadians enrolled in the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, which supports research into environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors related to the development and progression of cancer and chronic diseases[ii].

The researchers found that gene function was more dependent on environmental exposures than on inherited genetics. ‘We were surprised to find that we were able to stratify genetic ancestry within Quebec, identifying individuals whose descendants were from Montreal versus Saguenay, for example,’ explains Dr. Philip Awdalla, the senior author of the study:

This helped us to show how most gene expression is not derived by ancestry, and that environmental exposures associated with living in a particular city or region are more impactful on gene expression associated with disease traits than heritable variation’.

One of the main findings of the study was that rates of respiratory ailments such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) were higher in the Saguenay area. In these participants, greater exposure to particulate matter and nitrous dioxide affected the function of genes associated with respiratory function.  The study also found that some genetic variants control how someone’s gene function responds when exposed to environmental stimuli.

The results of this study could be used to inform strategies for prevention of chronic diseases.


[i] Favé, M.-J. et al. Gene-by-environment interactions in urban populations modulate risk phenotypes. Nature Communications 9, 827 (2018). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-03202-2 (Accessed 7 March 2018)

[ii] Environmental exposures more determinant of respiratory health than inherited genetics. Science Daily. 6 March 2018 https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/03/180306115446.htm (Accessed 7 March 2018)