Smoking-Associated Exposure of Human Primary Bronchial Epithelial Cells to Aldehydes: Impact on Molecular Mechanisms Controlling Mitochondrial Content and Function

Cells. 2022 Nov 3;11(21):3481. doi: 10.3390/cells11213481.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a devastating lung disease primarily caused by exposure to cigarette smoke (CS). During the pyrolysis and combustion of tobacco, reactive aldehydes such as acetaldehyde, acrolein, and formaldehyde are formed, which are known to be involved in respiratory toxicity. Although CS-induced mitochondrial dysfunction has been implicated in the pathophysiology of COPD, the role of aldehydes therein is incompletely understood. To investigate this, we used a physiologically relevant in vitro exposure model of differentiated human primary bronchial epithelial cells (PBEC) exposed to CS (one cigarette) or a mixture of acetaldehyde, acrolein, and formaldehyde (at relevant concentrations of one cigarette) or air, in a continuous flow system using a puff-like exposure protocol. Exposure of PBEC to CS resulted in elevated IL-8 cytokine and mRNA levels, increased abundance of constituents associated with autophagy, decreased protein levels of molecules associated with the mitophagy machinery, and alterations in the abundance of regulators of mitochondrial biogenesis. Furthermore, decreased transcript levels of basal epithelial cell marker KRT5 were reported after CS exposure. Only parts of these changes were replicated in PBEC upon exposure to a combination of acetaldehyde, acrolein, and formaldehyde. More specifically, aldehydes decreased MAP1LC3A mRNA (autophagy) and BNIP3 protein (mitophagy) and increased ESRRA protein (mitochondrial biogenesis). These data suggest that other compounds in addition to aldehydes in CS contribute to CS-induced dysregulation of constituents controlling mitochondrial content and function in airway epithelial cells.

Keywords: acetaldehyde; acrolein; cigarette smoke; formaldehyde; inhalation toxicology; mitochondria; primary bronchial epithelial cells.

MeSH terms

  • Acetaldehyde / metabolism
  • Acetaldehyde / toxicity
  • Acrolein / metabolism
  • Acrolein / toxicity
  • Aldehydes* / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Formaldehyde
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive* / metabolism
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Smoking
  • Tobacco


  • Aldehydes
  • Acrolein
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Formaldehyde
  • RNA, Messenger