Microarray analysis of mercury-induced changes in gene expression in human liver carcinoma (HepG2) cells: importance in immune responses

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2006 Jun;3(2):141-73. doi: 10.3390/ijerph2006030018.


Mercury is widely distributed in the biosphere, and its toxic effects have been associated with human death and several ailments that include cardiovascular diseases, anemia, kidney and liver damage, developmental abnormalities, neurobehavioral disorders, autoimmune diseases, and cancers in experimental animals. At the cellular level, mercury has been shown to interact with sulphydryl groups of proteins and enzymes, to damage DNA, and to modulate cell cycle progression and/or apoptosis. However, the underlying molecular mechanisms of mercury toxicity remain to be elucidated. Our laboratory has demonstrated that mercury exposure induces cytotoxicity and apoptosis, modulates cell cycle, and transcriptionally activates specific stress genes in human liver carcinoma cells. The liver is one of the few organs capable of regeneration from injury. Dormant genes in the liver are therefore capable of reactivation. In this research, we hypothesize that mercury-induced hepatotoxicity is associated with the modulation of specific gene expressions in liver cells that can lead to several disease states involving immune system dysfunctions. In testing this hypothesis, we used an Affymetrix oligonucleotide microarray with probe sets complementary to more than 20,000 genes to determine whether patterns of gene expressions differ between controls and mercury (1-3 microg/mL) treated cells. There was a clear separation in gene expression profiles between controls and mercury-treated cells. Hierarchical cluster analysis identified 2,211 target genes that were affected. One hundred and eighty-eight of these genes were up-regulated, among which forty eight were significant (p = 0.001) with greater than a two-fold change difference in the concentration range (1-3 microg/mL) of mercury-treated cells; twelve genes were moderately over-expressed with an increase of more than one fold (p = 0.004). 2,023 genes were down-regulated with only forty of them reaching statistically significant decline at p = 0.05 according to the Welch's ANOVA/Welch's t-test. Further analyses of affected genes identified genes located on all human chromosomes with higher than normal effects on genes found on chromosomes 1-14, 17-20 (sex-determining region Y)-box18SRY, 21 (splicing factor, arginine/serine-rich 15 and ATP-binding), and X (including BCL6-co-repressor). These genes are categorized as control and regulatory genes for metabolic pathways involving the cell cycle (cyclin-dependent kinases), apoptosis, cytokine expression, Na+/K+ ATPase, stress responses, G-protein signal transduction, transcription factors, DNA repair as well as metal-regulatory transcription factor 1, MTF1 HGNC, chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan 5 (neuroglycan C), ATP-binding cassette, sub-family G (WHITE), cytochrome b-561 family protein, CDC-like kinase 1 (CLK1 HGNC) (protein tyrosine kinase STY), Na+/H+ exchanger regulatory factor (NHERF HGNC), potassium voltage-gated channel subfamily H member 2 (KCNH2), putative MAPK activating protein (PM20, PM21), ras homolog gene family, polymerase (DNA directed), delta regulatory subunit (50 kDa), leptin receptor involved in hematopoietin/interferon-class (D200- domain) cytokine receptor activity and thymidine kinase 2, mitochondrial TK2 HGNC and related genes. Significant alterations in these specific genes provide new directions for deeper mechanistic investigations that would lead to a better understanding of the molecular basis of mercury-induced toxicity and human diseases that may result from disturbances in the immune system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Humans
  • Liver / drug effects
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Mercury / toxicity*
  • Oligonucleotide Array Sequence Analysis


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Mercury