How can exposure to engineered nanomaterials influence our epigenetic code? A review of the mechanisms and molecular targets

Mutat Res Rev Mutat Res. 2021 Jul-Dec:788:108385. doi: 10.1016/j.mrrev.2021.108385. Epub 2021 Jun 12.


Evidence suggests that engineered nanomaterials (ENM) can induce epigenetic modifications. In this review, we provide an overview of the epigenetic modulation of gene expression induced by ENM used in a variety of applications: titanium dioxide (TiO2), silver (Ag), gold (Au), silica (SiO2) nanoparticles and carbon-based nanomaterials (CNM). Exposure to these ENM can trigger alterations in cell patterns of DNA methylation, post-transcriptional histone modifications and expression of non-coding RNA. Such effects are dependent on ENM dose and physicochemical properties including size, shape and surface chemistry, as well as on the cell/organism sensitivity. The genes affected are mostly involved in the regulation of the epigenetic machinery itself, as well as in apoptosis, cell cycle, DNA repair and inflammation related pathways, whose long-term alterations might lead to the onset or progression of certain pathologies. In addition, some DNA methylation patterns may be retained as a form of epigenetic memory. Prenatal exposure to ENM may impair the normal development of the offspring by transplacental effects and/or putative transmission of epimutations in imprinting genes. Thus, understanding the impact of ENM on the epigenome is of paramount importance and epigenetic evaluation must be considered when assessing the risk of ENM to human health.

Keywords: Epigenetic inheritance; Epigenetics; Human health; In vitro; In vivo; Nanomaterials.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Methylation / drug effects
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Histone Code / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Nanostructures / adverse effects*
  • Nanostructures / chemistry
  • Nanostructures / toxicity
  • RNA, Untranslated / genetics
  • RNA, Untranslated / metabolism


  • RNA, Untranslated