The epigenetic effects on DNA methylation, histone modification, and expression of non-coding RNAs (including microRNAs) of environmental chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates have expanded our understanding of the etiology of human complex diseases such as cancers and diabetes. Multiple lines of evidence from in vitro and in vivo models have established that epigenetic modifications caused by in utero exposure to environmental toxicants can induce alterations in gene expression that may persist throughout life. Epigenetics is an important mechanism in the ability of environmental chemicals to influence health and disease, and BPA and phthalates are epigenetically toxic. The epigenetic effect of BPA was clearly demonstrated in viable yellow mice by decreasing CpG methylation upstream of the Agouti gene, and the hypomethylating effect of BPA was prevented by maternal dietary supplementation with a methyl donor like folic acid or the phytoestrogen genistein. Histone H3 was found to be trimethylated at lysine 27 by BPA effect on EZH2 in a human breast cancer cell line and mice. BPA exposure of human placental cell lines has been shown to alter microRNA expression levels, and specifically, miR-146a was strongly induced by BPA treatment. In human breast cancer MCF7 cells, treatment with the phthalate BBP led to demethylation of estrogen receptor (ESR1) promoter-associated CpG islands, indicating that altered ESR1 mRNA expression by BBP is due to aberrant DNA methylation. Maternal exposure to phthalate DEHP was also shown to increase DNA methylation and expression levels of DNA methyltransferases in mouse testis. Further, some epigenetic effects of BPA and phthalates in female rats were found to be transgenerational. Finally, the available new technologies for global analysis of epigenetic alterations will provide insight into the extent and patterns of alterations between human normal and diseased tissues. In vitro models such as human embryonic stem cells may be extremely useful in bettering the understanding of epigenetic effects on human development, health and disease, because the formation of embryoid bodies in vitro is very similar to the early stage of embryogenesis.
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