Quantcast
Health
Bob Berg / Getty Images

How Summer and Diet Damage Your DNA, and What You Can Do

By Adam Barsouk

Today, your body will accumulate quadrillions of new injuries in your DNA. The constant onslaught of many forms of damage, some of which permanently mutates your genes, could initiate cancer and prove fatal. Yet all is not doomed: The lives we lead determine how well our cells can handle this daily molecular erosion.


Certain cells are particularly at risk. Your skin, for instance, is constantly being bombarded by high-energy UV light that wreaks havoc on your DNA. This UV light should not be taken lightly—1 in 5 Americans develops skin cancer in their lifetime, more than any other cancer. So as you're hitting the beach with sugary margaritas in hand, remember that deadly skin cancer rates are at record-highs, as are cancers associated with obesity.

I am a medical student in Dr. Patricia Opresko's lab at the University of Pittsburgh, which stands at the intersection of two Nobel Prize-winning disciplines: DNA repair and telomeres. Telomeres are protective regions at the ends of our chromosomes that hold the DNA together like the plastic cap on your shoelace. Her lab's work is revealing the molecular machinery that repairs your telomeres after UV and metabolic (related to energy extraction from food) damage, and the many ways it can go awry.

Telomeres: Where Chromosomes End and Our Research Begins

In the minute you've been reading, hundreds of trillions of new lesions have occurred in your DNA. Fortunately, a special class of proteins is vigilantly detecting and repairing these errors.

Repair is particularly important in telomeres.

The telomere is no small thing, at least not figuratively: Their length is correlated with many symptoms of aging. Human studies have shown that people with shorter telomeres suffer worsened immunity and heart disease along with greater mortality. With every year, your telomeres get shorter, some cells stop replicating and these symptoms worsen. We do not yet know whether telomeres are the secret to aging. What we do know is that UV and metabolic damage, which further shorten telomeres, can trigger cancer and aging; when you break the plastic cap, you unravel the whole shoelace.

Bathing our skin in UV light causes an onslaught of damage. In fact, regular skin cells from older adults have about as many mutations as cancer cells. At best, the sun's dangerous rays can cause the skin cells to commit suicide and flake off. At worst, those cells remain and become cancerous.

One such "molecular sunburn" is called a photoproduct, which forms when the energy from UV light causes two adjacent units of your DNA to stick together, potentially interfering with its normal function. Ten thousand photoproducts occur in every skin cell every day due to sun exposure.

You (and Your Telomeres) Are What You Eat

Telomeres are especially prone to such damage. And although telomeres don't contain valuable body-building instructions like genes, when photoproducts damage our telomeres, a cell can turn on a special protein called telomerase which makes the telomeres longer. This might sound like a way to stay forever young. After all, aren't short telomeres the culprit of aging? But in extending its telomeres, the cell no longer has a limit to how many times it can replicate. This explains why more than 85 percent of all cancers exhibit extended telomeres. It seems that while longer telomeres are the key to our immortality, under the wrong circumstances, they can also be our downfall. When we fail to use UV protective sunscreen to safeguard our telomeres, we are, quite literally, flying too close to the sun.

Your metabolism, which breaks down food to extract energy, generates high-energy particles called free radicals that, like UV light, can distort the units in your DNA. This, in turn, wears away at your telomeres. Such metabolic damage accumulates over a lifetime of eating. Scientists believe this is why older, overweight adults, who have spent many years metabolizing more food than average, have a far greater risk of telomere shortening and cancer. Moreover, it seems diets rich in antioxidants, found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, which counter that metabolic damage, actually protect telomeres as well.

Lengthening Our Telomeres and Our Lives

While our telomere length once seemed pre-determined by our genes, the more medical researchers learn, the more we realize the impact of our lifestyles. Smoking, UV-light exposure, obesity, lack of exercise, stress and poor diet can all diminish our telomeres, squandering our molecular fountain of youth.

In Dr. Patricia Opresko's lab, we are investigating how telomere repair keeps up with the damage wrought by our daily lives, as well as the dire consequences when it no longer can. The hope is that by better understanding the mechanisms of cancer formation, we can design better therapies. Yet our findings are important not only for treating cancer, but also for preventing it.

My grandfather lost his battle against an aggressive form of skin cancer just weeks before my bar mitzvah. My grandmother, who valued education above all else, died of cancer days prior to my high school graduation. Their untimely loss inspired me to take up research in the very center where they received their care. Every cancer cell I study, and every hallway I walk, I am reminded of my grandparents and the countless other like them that could benefit from our research.

As King Henry VIII noted, time is the only invincible opponent. My grandparents are among the billions who succumbed to the onslaught of time. In studying telomeres, many are searching for an elusive fountain of youth that can reverse aging and overcome death. Yet the answers that we uncover are far less fanciful. It is not our telomeres that shorten our lifespans but our lives that shorten our telomeres. As many as half of medical deaths in the U.S. are preventable. Small choices as simple as using UV-A and UV-B protective sunscreen, eating smarter and exercising regularly can go a long way in empowering us to take command of our health.

We still have much to learn before we can use the secrets of our telomeres to surpass the limitations of our genetic makeup. But there are countless steps you can take today to protect your telomeres from the sun and from yourself. Research barters in knowledge, but it is action, inspired by knowledge, which can keep families like mine together for longer.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Fracking
A protester outside the site where fracking restarted in the UK in October. OLI SCARFF / AFP / Getty Images

UK Fracking Paused Again After Largest Quake Yet

It would appear that the resurgence of fracking in the UK is on very shaky ground. A company called Cuadrilla restarted the controversial technique at a site in Lancashire, in Northwest England, just two months ago after a seven year hiatus. But it spent a month of that time doing tests with smaller volumes of water after a series of small earthquakes in October, The Guardian reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A reindeer in Sweden. Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd) / GNU Free Documentation License

Reindeer Numbers Have Fallen by More than Half in 2 Decades

It's a sad Christmas for the world's reindeer—the antlered Arctic grazers associated with all things Santa Claus. Their numbers have fallen by more than half in the past 20 years, and climate change is likely to blame.

The latest numbers come from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2018 Arctic Report Card, which listed the increasing impacts of global warming on the earth's northernmost region, as EcoWatch has already reported. But the loss of Rangifer tarandus—called caribou in North America and Greenland and reindeer in Siberia and Europe—is of note because it threatens to further throw Arctic ecosystems and cultures out of whack. Reindeer are important prey for wolves and biting flies, and a key source of food and clothing for indigenous groups.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Mackinac Bridge from Straits of Mackinac. Gregory Varnum / Wikimedia Commons

Michigan Gov. Signs Bill to Keep Line 5 Pipeline Flowing

Michigan's outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation on Wednesday that creates a new government authority to oversee a proposed oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac to effectively allow Canadian oil to keep flowing through the Great Lakes.

The controversial tunnel will encase a replacement segment for Enbridge Energy's aging Line 5 pipelines that run along the bottom of the Straits, a narrow waterway that connects Lakes Huron and Michigan.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
The illegal La Pampa gold mine, seen here in 2017, has devastated the Peruvian Amazon and spread poisonous mercury. Planet Labs

Unprecedented New Map Unveils Illegal Mining Destroying Amazon

A first-of-its-kind map has unveiled widespread environmental damage and contamination of the Amazon rainforest caused by the rise illegal mining.

The survey, released Monday by the Amazon Socio-Environmental Geo-Referenced Information Project (RAISG), identifies at least 2,312 sites and 245 areas of prospecting or extraction of minerals such as gold, diamonds and coltan in six Amazonian countries—Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. It also identified 30 rivers affected by mining and related activities.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Animals
Mako sharks killed at the South Jersey Shark Tournament in June 2017. Lewis Pugh

Shark Fishing Tournaments Devalue Ocean Wildlife and Harm Marine Conservation Efforts

By Rick Stafford

Just over three years ago, I was clinging to a rock in 20 meters of water, trying to stop the current from pulling me out to sea. I peered out into the gloom of the Pacific. Suddenly, three big dark shapes came into view, moving in a jerky, yet somehow smooth and majestic manner. I looked directly into the left eyes of hammerhead sharks as they swam past, maybe 10 meters from me. I could see the gill slits, the brown skin. But most of all, what struck me was just how big these animals are—far from the biggest sharks in the seas, but incredibly powerfully built and solid. These are truly magnificent creatures.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Sen. Joe Manchin and United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts held a press conference on Oct. 3, 2017. Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call

Coal-Friendly Manchin Named Top Dem on Senate Energy Panel

After weeks of discord over the potential appointment, Sen. Joe Manchin, the pro-coal Democrat of West Virginia, was named the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday.

Many Democrats and environmental groups were adamantly opposed to Manchin serving as the top Democrat on the committee that oversees policies on climate change, public lands and fossil fuel production.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Insights/Opinion
Hikers on the Mt. Hollywood Trail in Griffin Park, Calif. while a brush fire burned in the Angeles National Forest on Aug. 26, 2009. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Major Health Study Shows Benefits of Combating Climate Change

During the holiday season, people often drink toasts to health. There's something more we can do to ensure that we and others will enjoy good health now and into the future: combat climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Employees of Rural Renewable Energy Alliance working together with students and faculty of Leech Lake Tribal Collage to construct solar panels, 2017. Ryan James White

A Tribe in Northern Minnesota Shows the Country How to Do Community Solar

By Susan Cosier

Last summer on a reservation in northern Minnesota, students from Leech Lake Tribal College earned their solar installation licenses while they dug, drilled and connected five photovoltaic arrays. The panels shine blue on the plain, reflecting the sky as they generate roughly 235 megawatts of electricity a year, enough to help 100 families pay their energy bills. This is community solar in action.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!