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.
To save the planet, we must save the Amazon rainforest. To save the rainforest, we must save its indigenous peoples. And to do that, we must demarcate their land.
A new EarthxTV film special calls for the protection of the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous people that call it home. EarthxTV.org
- Meet the 'Women Warriors' Protecting the Amazon Forest - EcoWatch ›
- Indigenous Tribes Are Using Drones to Protect the Amazon ... ›
- Amazon Rainforest Will Collapse by 2064, New Study Predicts ... ›
- Deforestation in Amazon Skyrockets to 12-Year High Under Bolsonaro ›
- Amazon Rainforest on the Brink of Turning Into a Net Carbon Emitter ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Anke Rasper
"Today's interim report from the UNFCCC is a red alert for our planet," said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
The report, released Friday, looks at the national climate efforts of 75 states that have already submitted their updated "nationally determined contributions," or NDCs. The countries included in the report are responsible for about 30% of the world's global greenhouse gas emissions.
- World Leaders Fall Short of Meeting Paris Agreement Goal - EcoWatch ›
- UN Climate Change Conference COP26 Delayed to November ... ›
- 5 Years After Paris: How Countries' Climate Policies Match up to ... ›
- Biden Win Puts World 'Within Striking Distance' of 1.5 C Paris Goal ... ›
- Biden Reaffirms Commitment to Rejoining Paris Agreement ... ›
India's New Delhi has been called the "world air pollution capital" for its high concentrations of particulate matter that make it harder for its residents to breathe and see. But one thing has puzzled scientists, according to The Guardian. Why does New Delhi see more blinding smogs than other polluted Asian cities, such as Beijing?
- This Indian Startup Turns Polluted Air Into Climate-Friendly Tiles ... ›
- How to Win the Fight Against Plastic - EcoWatch ›
In a historic move, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted Thursday to ban hydraulic fracking in the region. The ban was supported by all four basin states — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York — putting a permanent end to hydraulic fracking for natural gas along the 13,539-square-mile basin, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
- Appalachian Fracking Boom Was a Jobs Bust, Finds New Report ... ›
- Long-Awaited EPA Study Says Fracking Pollutes Drinking Water ... ›
- Pennsylvania Fracking Water Contamination Much Higher Than ... ›
Colombia is one of the world's largest producers of coffee, and yet also one of the most economically disadvantaged. According to research by the national statistic center DANE, 35% of the population in Columbia lives in monetary poverty, compared to an estimated 11% in the U.S., according to census data. This has led to a housing insecurity issue throughout the country, one which construction company Woodpecker is working hard to solve.
- Kenyan Engineer Recycles Plastic Into Bricks Stronger Than ... ›
- Could IKEA's New Tiny House Help Fight the Climate Crisis ... ›