In utero Exposure to Genotoxicants Leading to Genetic Mosaicism: An Overlooked Window of Susceptibility in Genetic Toxicology Testing?

Environ Mol Mutagen. 2020 Jan;61(1):55-65. doi: 10.1002/em.22347. Epub 2019 Dec 5.


In utero development represents a sensitive window for the induction of mutations. These mutations may subsequently expand clonally to populate entire organs or anatomical structures. Although not all adverse mutations will affect tissue structure or function, there is growing evidence that clonally expanded genetic mosaics contribute to various monogenic and complex diseases, including cancer. We posit that genetic mosaicism is an underestimated potential health problem that is not fully addressed in the current regulatory genotoxicity testing paradigm. Genotoxicity testing focuses exclusively on adult exposures and thus may not capture the complexity of genetic mosaicisms that contribute to human disease. Numerous studies have shown that conversion of genetic damage into mutations during early developmental exposures can result in much higher mutation burdens than equivalent exposures in adults in certain tissues. Therefore, we assert that analysis of genetic effects caused by in utero exposures should be considered in the current regulatory testing paradigm, which is possible by harmonization with current reproductive/developmental toxicology testing strategies. This is particularly important given the recent proposed paradigm change from simple hazard identification to quantitative mutagenicity assessment. Recent developments in sequencing technologies offer practical tools to detect mutations in any tissue or species. In addition to mutation frequency and spectrum, these technologies offer the opportunity to characterize the extent of genetic mosaicism following exposure to mutagens. Such integration of new methods with existing toxicology guideline studies offers the genetic toxicology community a way to modernize their testing paradigm and to improve risk assessment for vulnerable populations. Environ. Mol. Mutagen. 61:55-65, 2020. © 2019 The Authors. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of Environmental Mutagen Society.

Keywords: in utero exposure; genetic mosaicism; regulatory toxicology.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Genetic Testing / methods
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Mosaicism / drug effects*
  • Mutagenesis / drug effects
  • Mutagenicity Tests / methods
  • Mutagens / toxicity*
  • Mutation / drug effects*
  • Mutation Rate
  • Paternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / genetics*


  • Mutagens