The effect of exposure to carcinogenic metals on histone tail modifications and gene expression in human subjects

J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2012 Jun;26(2-3):174-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jtemb.2012.03.012. Epub 2012 May 24.


The precise mechanisms by which nickel and arsenic compounds exert their carcinogenic properties are not completely understood. In recent years, alterations of epigenetic mechanisms have been implicated in the carcinogenesis of compounds of these two metals. In vitro exposure to certain nickel or arsenic compounds induces changes in both DNA methylation patterns, as well as, in the levels of posttranslational modifications of histone tails. Changes in DNA methylation patterns have been reported in human subjects exposed to arsenic. Here we review our recent reports on the alterations in global levels of posttranslational histone modifications in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) of subjects with occupational exposure to nickel and subjects exposed to arsenic in their drinking water. Occupational exposure to nickel was associated with an increase in H3K4me3 and decrease in H3K9me2. A global increase in H3K9me2 and decrease in H3K9ac was found in subjects exposed to arsenic. Additionally, exposure to arsenic resulted in opposite changes in a number of histone modifications in males when compared with females in the arsenic population. The results of these two studies suggest that exposure to nickel or arsenic compounds, and possibly other carcinogenic metal compounds, can induce changes in global levels of posttranslational histone modifications in peripheral blood mononuclear cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Arsenic / toxicity
  • Carcinogens / toxicity*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic / drug effects*
  • Histones / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Nickel / toxicity


  • Carcinogens
  • Histones
  • Nickel
  • Arsenic