Natural variation in C. elegans arsenic toxicity is explained by differences in branched chain amino acid metabolism

Elife. 2019 Apr 8:8:e40260. doi: 10.7554/eLife.40260.


We find that variation in the dbt-1 gene underlies natural differences in Caenorhabditis elegans responses to the toxin arsenic. This gene encodes the E2 subunit of the branched-chain α-keto acid dehydrogenase (BCKDH) complex, a core component of branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) metabolism. We causally linked a non-synonymous variant in the conserved lipoyl domain of DBT-1 to differential arsenic responses. Using targeted metabolomics and chemical supplementation, we demonstrate that differences in responses to arsenic are caused by variation in iso-branched chain fatty acids. Additionally, we show that levels of branched chain fatty acids in human cells are perturbed by arsenic treatment. This finding has broad implications for arsenic toxicity and for arsenic-focused chemotherapeutics across human populations. Our study implicates the BCKDH complex and BCAA metabolism in arsenic responses, demonstrating the power of C. elegans natural genetic diversity to identify novel mechanisms by which environmental toxins affect organismal physiology.

Editorial note: This article has been through an editorial process in which the authors decide how to respond to the issues raised during peer review. The Reviewing Editor's assessment is that all the issues have been addressed (see decision letter).

Keywords: C. elegans; environmental toxin; evolutionary biology; genetics; genomics; human cell lines; natural variation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • 3-Methyl-2-Oxobutanoate Dehydrogenase (Lipoamide) / metabolism*
  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Arsenic / toxicity*
  • Biological Variation, Population*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / drug effects*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / enzymology
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / metabolism*
  • Genetic Variation
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans


  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain
  • 3-Methyl-2-Oxobutanoate Dehydrogenase (Lipoamide)
  • Arsenic

Associated data

  • SRA/PRJNA318647