Circulating cell-free DNA: an up-coming molecular marker in exercise physiology

Sports Med. 2012 Jul 1;42(7):565-86. doi: 10.2165/11631380-000000000-00000.


The phenomenon of circulating cell-free DNA (cfDNA) concentrations is of importance for many biomedical disciplines including the field of exercise physiology. Increases of cfDNA due to exercise are described to be a potential hallmark for the overtraining syndrome and might be related to, or trigger adaptations of, immune function induced by strenuous exercise. At the same time, exercise provides a practicable model for studying the phenomenon of cfDNA that is described to be of pathophysiological relevance for different topics in clinical medicine like autoimmune diseases and cancer. In this review, we are summarizing the current knowledge of exercise-based acute and chronic alterations in cfDNA levels and their physiological significance. The effects of acute exercise on cfDNA concentrations have been investigated in resistance exercises and in continuous, stepwise and interval endurance exercises of different durations. cfDNA concentrations peaked immediately after acute exercise and showed a rapid return to baseline levels. Typical markers of skeletal muscle damage (creatine kinase, uric acid, C-reactive protein) show delayed kinetics compared with the cfDNA peak response. Exercise parameters such as intensity, duration or average energy expenditure do not explain the extent of increasing cfDNA concentrations after strenuous exercise. This could be due to complex processes inside the human organism during and after physical activity. Therefore, we hypothesize composite effects of different physiological stress parameters that come along with exercise to be responsible for increasing cfDNA concentrations. We suggest that due to acute stress, cfDNA levels increase rapidly by a spontaneous active or passive release mechanism that is not yet known. As a result of the rapid and parallel increase of cfDNA and lactate in an incremental treadmill test leading to exhaustion within 15-20 minutes, it is unlikely that cfDNA is released into the plasma by typical necrosis or apoptosis of cells in acute exercise settings. Recently, rapid DNA release mechanisms of activated immune-competent cells like NETosis (pathogen-induced cell death including the release of neutrophil extracellular traps [NETs]) have been discovered. cfDNA accumulations might comprise a similar kind of cell death including trap formation or an active release of cfDNA. Just like chronic diseases, chronic high-intensity resistance training protocols induced persistent increases of cfDNA levels. Chronic, strenuous exercise protocols, either long-duration endurance exercise or regular high-intensity workouts, induce chronic inflammation that might lead to a slow, constant release of DNA. This could be due to mechanisms of cell death like apoptosis or necrosis. Yet, it has neither been implicated nor proven sufficiently whether cfDNA can serve as a marker for overtraining. The relevance of cfDNA with regard to overtraining status, performance level, and the degree of physical exhaustion still remains unclear. Longitudinal studies are required that take into account standardized and controlled exercise, serial blood sampling, and large and homogeneous cohorts of different athletic achievement. Furthermore, it is important to establish standardized laboratory procedures for the measurement of genomic cfDNA concentrations by quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR). We introduce a new hypothesis based on acute exercise and chronic exposure to stress, and rapid active and passive chronic release of cfDNA fragments into the circulation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Cumulative Trauma Disorders / physiopathology
  • DNA / blood*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exercise Test
  • Humans
  • Physical Endurance / physiology
  • Resistance Training
  • Running / physiology


  • Biomarkers
  • DNA