Emissions from diesel vehicles and biomass burning are the principal sources of primary ultrafine particles (UFP). The exposure to UFP has been associated to cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, including lung cancer. Although many aspects of the toxicology of ambient particulate matter (PM) have been unraveled, the molecular mechanisms activated in human cells by the exposure to UFP are still poorly understood. Here, we present an RNA-seq time-course experiment (five time point after single dose exposure) used to investigate the differential and temporal changes induced in the gene expression of human bronchial epithelial cells (BEAS-2B) by the exposure to UFP generated from diesel and biomass combustion. A combination of different bioinformatics tools (EdgeR, next-maSigPro and reactome FI app-Cytoscape and prioritization strategies) facilitated the analyses the temporal transcriptional pattern, functional gene set enrichment and gene networks related to cellular response to UFP particles.
The bioinformatics analysis of transcriptional data reveals that the two different UFP induce, since the earliest time points, different transcriptional dynamics resulting in the activation of specific genes. The functional enrichment of differentially expressed genes indicates that the exposure to diesel UFP induces the activation of genes involved in TNFα signaling via NF-kB and inflammatory response, and hypoxia. Conversely, the exposure to ultrafine particles from biomass determines less distinct modifications of the gene expression profiles. Diesel UFP exposure induces the secretion of biomarkers associated to inflammation (CCXL2, EPGN, GREM1, IL1A, IL1B, IL6, IL24, EREG, VEGF) and transcription factors (as NFE2L2, MAFF, HES1, FOSL1, TGIF1) relevant for cardiovascular and lung disease. By means of network reconstruction, four genes (STAT3, HIF1a, NFKB1, KRAS) have emerged as major regulators of transcriptional response of bronchial epithelial cells exposed to diesel exhaust.
Overall, this work highlights modifications of the transcriptional landscape in human bronchial cells exposed to UFP and sheds new lights on possible mechanisms by means of which UFP acts as a carcinogen and harmful factor for human health.