Paraquat (PQ), a commonly used herbicide, is highly toxic to humans and animals. The primary injury occurs in the lung, where PQ is actively taken up by alveolar epithelial cells and consequently produces damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) via redox cycling. ROS have also been shown to induce expression of several early response genes and to activate transcription factors, which may contribute to the inflammatory response associated with PQ injury. In order to further elucidate the mechanism(s) of PQ injury, we investigated its effects on the cellular status and gene expression profile of immortalized human alveolar epithelial A549 cells in vitro. Incubation of cells with PQ resulted in concentration- and time-dependent PQ uptake, which correlated with increases in intracellular ROS levels and decreases in intracellular glutathione content, mitochondrial membrane potential, and cell viability. Gene array analysis showed differential expression in response to PQ exposure over time, particularly increases in: (i) the expression of growth arrest and cell cycle-related genes (e.g. CDKN1A, DDIT3 GADD45A, GDF15, MDM2, EGR1, CASP10, CASP8) and (ii) the expression of pro-inflammatory genes (e.g. IL1A, IL6, IL18, NFKB1, SERPINE1), which correlated with increases in the secretion of pro-inflammatory cytokines (e.g. IL-8, IL-6). These data suggest that uptake of PQ by A549 cells altered the cellular redox status and the expression of several early response genes, including the inflammatory response, all of which might contribute to the overall cytotoxicity of PQ.
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