Gene Expression Profiling of Cylindrospermopsin Toxicity

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Patel, Bharat

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Cylindrospermopsin (CYN) is a toxic alkaloid produced by several freshwater cyanobacterial species, the most prevalent in Australian waters being Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii. The occurrence of CYN-producing cyanobacteria in drinking water sources worldwide poses a potential human health risk, with one well-documented case of human poisoning attributed to the toxin. While extensive characterisation of CYN-induced toxicity has been conducted in rodents both in vivo and in primary cell cultures, little is known about mechanisms of toxicity in human cell types. This thesis describes studies undertaken to further define the molecular mechanisms of CYN toxicity in human cells. Concentration-response relationships were determined in various cultured human cell types using standard toxicity assays. As expected, CYN caused dose-dependent decreases in the growth of three cell lines, HepG2, Caco-2 and HeLa, and one primary cell type, human dermal fibroblasts, according to tetrazolium reduction assays. CYN treatment did not disrupt cellular membranes according to the lactate dehydrogenase release assay in HepG2 or Caco-2 cells after 24, 48 or 72 h exposure, but did cause membrane disruption in fibroblasts after 72 h exposure to relatively high concentrations of the toxin. Apoptosis occurred more readily in HeLa cells than HepG2 cells or fibroblasts, with 72 h exposure to 1 µg/mL required before statistically significant rates of apoptosis occurred in the latter cell types. CYN did not appear to directly affect the structure of actin filaments or microtubules under the conditions used in the present study. The major portion of the work presented in this thesis comprises a large-scale interrogation of changes in gene expression induced by the toxin in cultured cells. To assess the effects of CYN on global gene expression, relative messenger RNA (mRNA) levels in human dermal fibroblasts and HepG2 cells after 6 h and 24 h exposure to 1 µg/mL CYN were determined using oligonucleotide microarrays representing approximately 19 000 genes. Overall, the number of transcripts significantly altered in abundance was greater in fibroblasts than in HepG2 cells. In both cell types, mRNA levels for genes related to amino acid biosynthesis, carbohydrate metabolism, and protein folding and transport were reduced after CYN treatment, while transcripts representing genes for apoptosis, RNA biosynthesis and RNA processing increased in abundance. More detailed data analyses revealed the modulation of a number of stress response pathways—genes regulated by NF-?B were induced, DNA damage response pathways were up-regulated, and a large number of genes involved in endoplasmic reticulum stress were strongly down-regulated. Genes for the synthesis and processing of mRNA, tRNA and rRNA were strongly up-regulated, indicating that CYN treatment may increase the turnover of all forms of cellular RNA. A small group of genes were differentially expressed in HepG2 cells and fibroblasts, revealing cell-specific responses to the toxin. Selected changes in transcript level were validated using real-time quantitative reverse transcriptase PCR (qRT-PCR). The modulation of stress response pathways by CYN, indicated by microarray analysis, was further investigated using other methods. The role of tumour suppressor protein p53 in CYN-mediated gene expression was confirmed by measuring the expression of known p53-regulated genes following CYN treatment of HepG2 cells and human dermal fibroblasts using qRT-PCR. Western blotting of protein extracts from CYNtreated cells showed that p53 protein accumulation occurred in HepG2 cells, providing additional evidence of the activation of the p53 pathway by CYN in this cell line. The immediate-early genes JUN and FOS were found to be induced by CYN in a concentration-dependent manner, and MYC was induced to a lesser extent. The mitogen-activated protein kinase c-Jun NH2-terminal kinase, implicated in the ribotoxic stress response initiated by damage to ribosomal RNA, appeared to become phosphorylated in HeLa cells after CYN exposure, suggesting that ribotoxic stress may occur in response to CYN in at least some cell types. The expression of a reporter gene under the control of a response element specific for NF-?B was induced at the mRNA level but inhibited at the protein level. This shows that while transcription factors such as p53 and NF-?B are apparently activated in response to the toxin, transactivation of target genes may not necessarily manifest a corresponding increase at the protein level. The current work contributes significantly to the current understanding of cylindrospermopsin toxicity in human-derived cell types, and provides further insight into putative modes of action.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Biomolecular and Physical Sciences

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gene expression profiling

Cylindrospermopsin toxicity


human health risk

human cell types

gene expression

human dermal fibroblasts

stress response pathways

cellular RNA

HepG2 cells

p53-regulated genes

NF-kB-mediated gene expression



DNA damage

Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii


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