Postdoctoral Scientist, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology


DNA is the blueprint of life, coding for all the information necessary to build an organism, maintain its integrity and pass the information from one generation to the next. However, thousands of DNA lesions arise in human cells every day. These lesions can corrupt the DNA information, leading to disease such as cancer. To prevent this, cells have evolved a machinery to repair DNA damage. However, these mechanisms are not completely efficient and some damage can still accumulate and cause disease. While significant advances have been made in the understanding of the mechanisms that repair damaged DNA, little is known about the factors that cause the damage in the first place.

Environmental sources of DNA damage, such as sun light or cigarette smoke, are widely recognized. It is far less appreciated that a substantial source of DNA damage is our own metabolism, which converts food and drink into building blocks but also generates molecules that damage DNA. One of these molecules is formaldehyde, a commonly used preservative and known carcinogen. Recently, we have shown that formaldehyde is generated within us in sufficient amounts to cause lethal DNA damage. However, we are protected from this threat by two systems: (1) formaldehyde detoxification and (2) DNA repair. When these two systems are inactivated in mice, DNA damage accumulates leading to cancer and dysfunction of vital organs.

These findings led me to investigate the origin of endogenous formaldehyde. Surprisingly, I found that a proportion of our endogenous formaldehyde comes from folate or vitamin B9. Folate is required to make some of the molecules that are crucial for life, such as DNA. This explains why folate is an essential nutrient, and why folate deficiency causes developmental abnormalities and anaemia. Folate needs to be consumed regularly, in part because this vitamin breaks apart in the body continuously due to spontaneous oxidation. In fact, folate supplements are given to pregnant women and some countries fortify certain foods with this vitamin. Surprisingly, I found that the spontaneous oxidation of folate can generate formaldehyde and damage DNA. Conversely, I then discovered that formaldehyde detoxification converts this carcinogen into an essential building block to make DNA. Thus, these findings reveal that folate and formaldehyde have two faces: a good one, because they support essential metabolism, and a bad one because they can damage DNA.


Genotoxic consequences of endogenous aldehydes on mouse haematopoietic stem cell function.

Abstract: Haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) regenerate blood cells throughout the lifespan of an organism. With age, the functional quality of HSCs declines, partly owing to the accumulation of damaged DNA. However, the factors that damage DNA and the protective mechanisms that operate in these cells are poorly understood. We have recently shown that the Fanconi anaemia DNA-repair pathway counteracts the genotoxic effects of reactive aldehydes. Mice with combined inactivation of aldehyde catabolism (through Aldh2 knockout) and the Fanconi anaemia DNA-repair pathway (Fancd2 knockout) display developmental defects, a predisposition to leukaemia, and are susceptible to the toxic effects of ethanol-an exogenous source of acetaldehyde. Here we report that aged Aldh2(-/-) Fancd2(-/-) mutant mice that do not develop leukaemia spontaneously develop aplastic anaemia, with the concomitant accumulation of damaged DNA within the haematopoietic stem and progenitor cell (HSPC) pool. Unexpectedly, we find that only HSPCs, and not more mature blood precursors, require Aldh2 for protection against acetaldehyde toxicity. Additionally, the aldehyde-oxidizing activity of HSPCs, as measured by Aldefluor stain, is due to Aldh2 and correlates with this protection. Finally, there is more than a 600-fold reduction in the HSC pool of mice deficient in both Fanconi anaemia pathway-mediated DNA repair and acetaldehyde detoxification. Therefore, the emergence of bone marrow failure in Fanconi anaemia is probably due to aldehyde-mediated genotoxicity restricted to the HSPC pool. These findings identify a new link between endogenous reactive metabolites and DNA damage in HSCs, and define the protective mechanisms that counteract this threat.

Pub.: 28 Aug '12, Pinned: 31 Jul '17

High intake of folic acid disrupts embryonic development in mice.

Abstract: Folic acid fortification and supplementation has increased folate intake and blood folate concentrations and successfully reduced the incidence of neural tube defects. However, the developmental consequences of high folate intake are unknown. This study investigated the impact of high folate intake, alone or with methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) deficiency, on embryonic and placental development in mice.Mthfr +/+ or +/- pregnant mice on a control diet (CD; recommended intake of folic acid for rodents) or folic acid-supplemented diet (FASD; 20-fold higher than the recommended intake) were examined for embryonic loss, delay, and defects at 10.5 and 14.5 days post coitum (dpc); 10.5-dpc placenta, and 14.5-dpc embryo hearts were studied histologically.Total plasma folate was 10-fold higher in FASD compared to CD mice; plasma homocysteine levels were not affected by diet. At 10.5 dpc, the FASD was associated with embryonic delay and growth retardation, and may confer susceptibility to embryonic defects. The FASD did not adversely affect 10.5-dpc placental development. At 14.5 dpc, embryos from the FASD Mthfr +/+ group were delayed and the FASD was associated with thinner ventricular walls in embryonic hearts. There was a significant interaction between maternal MTHFR deficiency and a high folate diet for several developmental outcomes.Our study suggests that high folate intake may have adverse effects on fetal mouse development and that maternal MTHFR deficiency may improve or rescue some of the adverse outcomes. These findings underscore the need for additional studies on the potential negative impact of high folate intake during pregnancy.

Pub.: 22 Jan '11, Pinned: 31 Jul '17

5-methyl-tetrahydrofolate and the S-adenosylmethionine cycle in C57BL/6J mouse tissues: gender differences and effects of arylamine N-acetyltransferase-1 deletion.

Abstract: Folate catabolism involves cleavage of the C(9)-N(10) bond to form p-aminobenzoylgluamate (PABG) and pterin. PABG is then acetylated by human arylamine N-acetyltransferase 1 (NAT1) before excretion in the urine. Mice null for the murine NAT1 homolog (Nat2) show several phenotypes consistent with altered folate homeostasis. However, the exact role of Nat2 in the folate pathway in vivo has not been reported. Here, we examined the effects of Nat2 deletion in male and female mice on the tissue levels of 5-methyl-tetrahydrofolate and the methionine-S-adenosylmethionine cycle. We found significant gender differences in hepatic and renal homocysteine, S-adenosylmethionine and methionine levels consistent with a more active methionine-S-adenosylmethionine cycle in female tissues. In addition, methionine levels were significantly higher in female liver and kidney. PABG was higher in female liver tissue but lower in kidney compared to male tissues. In addition, qPCR of mRNA extracted from liver tissue suggested a significantly lower level of Nat2 expression in female animals. Deletion of Nat2 affected liver 5- methyl-tetrahydrofolate in female mice but had little effect on other components of the methionine-S-adenosylmethionine cycle. No N-acetyl-PABG was observed in any tissues in Nat2 null mice, consistent with the role of Nat2 in PABG acetylation. Surprisingly, tissue PABG levels were similar between wild type and Nat2 null mice. These results show that Nat2 is not required to maintain tissue PABG homeostasis in vivo under normal conditions.

Pub.: 10 Nov '13, Pinned: 31 Jul '17

Development of a General Aza-Cope Reaction Trigger Applied to Fluorescence Imaging of Formaldehyde in Living Cells.

Abstract: Formaldehyde (FA) is a reactive signaling molecule that is continuously produced through a number of central biological pathways spanning epigenetics to one-carbon metabolism. On the other hand, aberrant, elevated levels of FA are implicated in disease states ranging from asthma to neurodegenerative disorders. In this context, fluorescence-based probes for FA imaging are emerging as potentially powerful chemical tools to help disentangle the complexities of FA homeostasis and its physiological and pathological contributions. Currently available FA indicators require direct modification of the fluorophore backbone through complex synthetic considerations to enable FA detection, often limiting the generalization of designs to other fluorophore classes. To address this challenge, we now present the rational, iterative development of a general reaction-based trigger utilizing 2-aza-Cope reactivity for selective and sensitive detection of FA in living systems. Specifically, we developed a homoallylamine functionality that can undergo a subsequent self-immolative β-elimination, creating a FA-responsive trigger that is capable of masking a phenol on a fluorophore or any other potential chemical scaffold for related imaging and/or therapeutic applications. We demonstrate the utility of this trigger by creating a series of fluorescent probes for FA with excitation and emission wavelengths that span the UV to visible spectral regions through caging of a variety of dye units. In particular, Formaldehyde Probe 573 (FAP573), based on a resorufin scaffold, is the most red-shifted and FA sensitive in this series in terms of signal-to-noise responses and enables identification of alcohol dehydrogenase 5 (ADH5) as an enzyme that regulates FA metabolism in living cells. The results provide a starting point for the broader use of 2-aza-Cope reactivity for probing and manipulating FA biology.

Pub.: 05 Apr '17, Pinned: 31 Jul '17

A 2-aza-Cope reactivity-based platform for ratiometric fluorescence imaging of formaldehyde in living cells.

Abstract: Formaldehyde (FA) is a major reactive carbonyl species (RCS) that is naturally produced in living systems through a diverse array of cellular pathways that span from epigenetic regulation to the metabolic processing of endogenous metabolites. At the same time, however, aberrant elevations in FA levels contribute to pathologies ranging from cancer and diabetes to heart, liver, and neurodegenerative diseases. Disentangling the complex interplay between FA physiology and pathology motivates the development of chemical tools that can enable the selective detection of this RCS in biological environments with spatial and temporal fidelity. We report the design, synthesis, and biological evaluation of ratiometric formaldehyde probe (RFAP) indicators for the excitation-ratiometric fluorescence imaging of formaldehyde production in living systems. RFAP-1 and RFAP-2 utilize FA-dependent aza-Cope reactivity to convert an alkylamine-functionalized coumarin platform into its aldehyde congener with a ca. 50 nm shift in the excitation wavelength. The probes exhibit visible excitation and emission profiles, and high selectivity for FA over a variety of RCS and related reactive biological analytes, including acetaldehyde, with up to a 6-fold change in the fluorescence ratio. The RFAP indicators can be used to monitor changes in FA levels in biological samples by live-cell imaging and/or flow cytometry. Moreover, RFAP-2 is capable of visualizing differences in the resting FA levels between wild-type cells and models with a gene knockout of ADH5, a major FA-metabolizing enzyme, establishing the utility of this ratiometric detection platform for identifying and probing sources of FA fluxes in biology.

Pub.: 06 Jun '17, Pinned: 31 Jul '17