Epigenetic targets of some toxicologically relevant metals: a review of the literature

J Appl Toxicol. 2012 Sep;32(9):643-53. doi: 10.1002/jat.2717. Epub 2012 Feb 15.


The term epigenetics was coined in the context of developmental studies, but the meaning of the term has evolved over time. Epigenetic modulators of gene expression are now known to include DNA methylation, chromatin modifications and noncoding RNAs. The observation that epigenetic changes can be transmitted transgenerationally makes the science of epigenetics very relevant to the field of environmental and molecular toxicology. Heavy metals constitute an important class of environmental contaminants that have been known to influence gene expression directly by binding various metal response elements in the target gene promoters. Recent research suggests that metals can also influence gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms; this adds a new twist to the complexity of metal-mediated gene expression. Here, we review recent studies that investigate the epigenetic, gene expression, and biological effects of various inorganic and organic forms of heavy metals, such as cadmium, arsenic, nickel, chromium, methylmercury, lead, copper and organotin compounds.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Methylation
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Gene Expression / drug effects*
  • Histones / chemistry
  • Histones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Metals, Heavy / toxicity*
  • Organometallic Compounds / toxicity*
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational
  • RNA, Untranslated


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Histones
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Organometallic Compounds
  • RNA, Untranslated