Nearly all diseases result from a complex interaction between an individual’s genetic make-up and the environmental agents that he or she is exposed to.
Examples of environmental agents:
- Air pollution
- Cleaning solutions
- Dust mites
- Some foods and medications
Subtle differences in genetic factors cause people to respond differently when exposed to the same environmental agent. As a result, some possess a low risk for developing a disease through an environmental insult, while others are much more vulnerable.
As scientists learn more about the connection between genetics and environmental factors, and how that connection may influence human disease, they’ll begin to develop new strategies for the treatment and prevention of many illnesses.
NIEHS researchers and grantees are presently studying a wide range of diseases and disorders with environmental triggers. Here are just a few examples:
Over time, scientists have found that rare gene changes (or mutations) as well as small common genetic variations are associated with autism, which indicates that autism has a genetic contributor. Additionally, a growing area of research indicates that autism may be caused by an interaction of genetic and environmental factors.
One hypothesis states that autism may be triggered by a mother’s exposure to environmental agents such as air pollution or pesticides while pregnant. These exposures, in turn, could cause or contribute to the child’s development of the disorder.
A full understanding of Parkinson’s disease (PD) risk requires integrated efforts to study both genetic and environmental factors. If environmental exposures can be identified, it may lead to new targets for prevention and intervention.
Environmental agents and or factors that scientists say could be linked to PD:
- Pesticide exposures
- Dietary nutrition
Additional information on NIEHS’ involvement in PD research is available online via the NIEHS Environmental Health Topics page on Parkinson's disease.
For years, NIEHS has played a leadership role in funding and conducting studies on the ways in which environmental exposures increase breast cancer risk. This research includes animal studies to understand the role of environmental agents in the initiation and progression of cancer, as well as research on chemical risk factors and genetic susceptibility in human populations.
Stories from the Environmental Factor on Gene-Environment Research
- NIEHS exposome faculty connects scientists from across the institute (February 2014)
- New evidence of gene-environment interaction in autism (January 2014)
- Synergistic Gene-Environment Interactions Increase Schizophrenia Risk (July 2013)
- Paraoxonases — poster-children for gene-environment interactions (October 2012)
- NIH Pioneer Discovers Genes Linked to High Altitude Tolerance (March 2012)
- Review Calls for Effective Communication in Evolutionary Genomics Studies (March 2012)
Additional Gene-Environment Resources and Programs
- Environmental Diseases: Environmental Diseases From A to Z (English) (4MB)
- Environmental Factors and Breast Cancer Risk (1016KB)
- Genes, Environment, and Health Initiative (National Institutes of Health)
- Genes, Behavior, the Environment, and Health (National Institutes of Health)
- Genes: What We Knew, Know, and Hope to Learn (National Institutes of Health)
- Household Products Database (National Library of Medicine)
- Human Genome Project (National Institutes of Health)
- Linking Early Environmental Exposures to Adult Diseases (312KB)
- Genetic Variation and Gene Environment Interaction in Human Health and Disease (231KB)
- You and Your Genes - Making it in a Tough Environment (286KB)