Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are naturally occurring genotoxic chemicals produced by a large number of plants. The high toxicity of many pyrrolizidine alkaloids has caused considerable loss of free-ranging livestock due to liver and pulmonary lesions. Chronic exposure of toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids to laboratory animals induces cancer. This investigation studies the metabolic activation of retrorsine, a representative naturally occurring tumorigenic pyrrolizidine alkaloid, and shows that a genotoxic mechanism is correlated to the tumorigenicity of retrorsine. Metabolism of retrorsine by liver microsomes of F344 female rats produced two metabolites, 6, 7-dihydro-7-hydroxy-1-hydroxymethyl-5H-pyrrolizine (DHP), at a rate of 4.8 ± 0.1 nmol/mg/min, and retrorsine-N-oxide, at a rate of 17.6±0.5 nmol/mg/min. Metabolism was enhanced 1.7-fold by using liver microsomes prepared from dexamethasone-treated rats. DHP formation was inhibited 77% and retrorsine N-oxide formation was inhibited 29% by troleandomycin, a P450 3A enzyme inhibitor. Metabolism of retrorsine with lung, kidney, and spleen microsomes from dexamethasone-treated rats also generated DHP and the N-oxide derivative. When rat liver microsomal metabolism of retrorsine occurred in the presence of calf thymus DNA, a set of DHP-derived DNA adducts was formed; these adducts were detected and quantified by using a previously developed 32
P-postlabeling/HPLC method. These same DNA adducts were also found in liver DNA of rats gavaged with retrorsine. Since DHP-derived DNA adducts are suggested to be potential biomarkers of riddelliine-induced tumorigenicity, our results indicate that (i) similar to the metabolic activation of riddelliine, the mechanism of retrorsine-induced carcinogenicity in rats is also through a genotoxic mechanism involving DHP; and (ii) the set of DHP-derived DNA adducts found in liver DNA of rats gavaged with retrorsine or riddelliine can serve as biomarkers for the tumorigenicity induced by retronecine-type pyrrolizidine alkaloids.