Background: Increasing evidence suggests that prenatal exposure to arsenic, even at common environmental levels, adversely affects child health. These adverse effects include impaired fetal growth, which can carry serious health implications lifelong. However, the mechanisms by which arsenic affects fetal health and development remain unclear. Methods: We addressed this question using a group of 46 pregnant women selected from the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study (NHBCS), a US cohort exposed to low-to-moderate arsenic levels in drinking water through the use of unregulated private wells. Prenatal arsenic exposure was assessed using maternal urine samples taken at mid-gestation. Samples of the fetal portion of the placenta were taken from the base of the umbilical cord insertion at the time of delivery, stored in RNAlater and frozen. We used RNA sequencing to analyze changes in global gene expression in the fetal placenta associated with in utero arsenic exposure, adjusting for maternal age. Gene set enrichment analysis and enrichment mapping were then used to identify biological processes represented by the differentially expressed genes. Since our previous analyses have identified considerable sex differences in placental gene expression associated with arsenic exposure, we analyzed male and female samples separately. Results: At FDR < 0.05, no genes were differentially expressed in female placenta, while 606 genes were differentially expressed in males. Genes showing the most significant associations with arsenic exposure in females were LEMD1 and UPK3B (fold changes 2.51 and 2.48), and in males, FIBIN and RANBP3L (fold changes 0.14 and 0.15). In gene set enrichment analyses, at FDR < 0.05, a total of 211 gene sets were enriched with differentially expressed genes in female placenta, and 154 in male placenta. In female but not male placenta, 103 of these gene sets were also associated with reduced birth weight. Conclusions: Our results reveal multiple biological functions in the fetal placenta that are potentially affected by increased arsenic exposure, a subset of which is sex-dependent. Further, our data suggest that in female infants, the mechanisms underlying the arsenic-induced reduction of birth weight may involve activation of stress response pathways.
Winterbottom, E. F., Ban, Y., Sun, X., Capobianco, A. J., Marsit, C. J., Chen, X., … Robbins, D. J. (2019). Transcriptome-wide analysis of changes in the fetal placenta associated with prenatal arsenic exposure in the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study. Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, 18(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-019-0535-x