Environmental factors cause molecular damage that can produce diseases including diabetes, new research suggests.
The study, conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), discovered that the biological machinery responsible for building DNA sometimes inserts molecules that are damaged by environmental factors.
The research, published in the journal Nature, potentially explains how one type of DNA damage can lead to diabetes, cancer, hypertensio, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The study was performed using time-lapse crystallography, a technique of taking snapshots of biochemical reactions that occur in cells.
Samuel Wilso, M.D., senior NIEHS researcher on the team, explained that the damage is caused by the production of free oxygen molecules. The generation of these molecules is affected by environmental factors such as ultraviolet exposure, diet, and chemical compounds found in paints, plastics, and other products.
He said: “When one of these oxidised nucleotides is placed into the DNA strand, it can’t pair with the opposing nucleotide as usual, which leaves a gap in the DNA. Until this paper, no one had actually seen how the polymerase did it or understood the downstream implications.
“The damaged nucleotide site is akin to a missing plank in a train track. When the engine hits it, the train jumps the track, and all of the box cars collide.”
Having a lot of these “missing planks” is lethal to the cell, triggering the development of disease. For researchers trying to destroy a cancerous cell, however, it can be useful.
Reducing the production of these free oxygen molecules (by reducing interaction with the problematic environmental factors), may help to inhibit the development of certain diseases.

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