Methylmercury (MeHg) has conventionally been investigated for effects on nervous system development. As such, epigenetic modifications have become an attractive mechanistic target, and research on MeHg and epigenetics has rapidly expanded in the past decade. Although, these inquiries are a recent advance in the field, much has been learned in regards to MeHg-induced epigenetic modifications, particularly in the brain. In vitro and in vivo controlled exposure studies illustrate that MeHg effects microRNA (miRNA) expression, histone modifications, and DNA methylation both globally and at individual genes. Moreover, some effects are transgenerationally inherited, as organisms not directly exposed to MeHg exhibited biological and behavioral alterations. miRNA expression generally appears to be downregulated consequent to exposure. Further, global histone acetylation also seems to be reduced, persist at distinct gene promoters, and is contemporaneous with enhanced histone methylation. Moreover, global DNA methylation appears to decrease in brain-derived tissues, but not in the liver; however, selected individual genes in the brain are hypermethylated. Human epidemiological studies have also identified hypo- or hypermethylated individual genes, which correlated with MeHg exposure in distinct populations. Intriguingly, several observed epigenetic modifications can be correlated with known mechanisms of MeHg toxicity. Despite this knowledge, however, the functional consequences of these modifications are not entirely evident. Additional research will be necessary to fully comprehend MeHg-induced epigenetic modifications and the impact on the toxic response.
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