Genetic basis of susceptibility to teratogen induced birth defects

Am J Med Genet C Semin Med Genet. 2011 Aug 15;157C(3):215-26. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.c.30314. Epub 2011 Jul 15.


Birth defects remain the leading cause of infant death in US. The field of teratology has been focused on the causes and underlying mechanisms of birth defects for decades, yet our understanding of these critical issues remain unacceptably vague. Conclusions from years of animal and human studies made it clear that the vast majority of birth defects have multifactorial origins, with contributions from environmental and genetic factors. The environment comprises not only of the physical, biological, and chemical external environment surrounding the pregnant woman, but it also includes the internal environment of the woman's body that interact with the developing embryo in a complex fashion. The importance of maternal and embryonic genetic factors consisting of countless genetic variants/mutations that exist within every individual contribute to birth defect susceptibility is only now being more fully appreciated. This great complexity of the genome and its diversity within individuals and populations seems to be the principal reason why the same teratogenic exposure can induce severe malformation in one embryo, while fail to do so to other exposed embryos. As the interaction between genetic and environmental factors has long been recognized as the first "Principle of Teratology" by Wilson and Warkany [1965. Teratology: Principles and techniques. Chicago: University of Chicago Press], it is only recently that the appropriate investigative tools have been developed with which to fully investigate this fundamental principle. The introduction of high throughput technologies like whole genome sequencing or genome-wide association studies are promising to deliver an enormous amount of new data that will shed light on the genomic factors that contribute susceptibility to environmental teratogens. In this review, we attempt to summarize the epidemiological and experimental literature concerning birth defects whose phenotypic expression can be clearly related to the interactions between several select environmental factors and those genetic pathways in which they are most likely to have significant modifying effects. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Drug-Induced / genetics*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Teratogens / toxicity*


  • Teratogens