DNA Day experts answer your questions about the causes of DNA mutation

CurioCity
18 April 2013

Above: Image © Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

How can enviromental factors such as radation mutate DNA?

The chemical structure of bonds holding DNA together are sensitive to UV radiation, causing damage. While we do have repair mechanisms, not all the damage can be fixed all of the time. When the cells replicate the damaged areas mistakes are made in the replication, these mistakes are called mutations.

- Answer provided by Dr. Richard Sparling

How likely is the occurence of a genetic mutation through radiation?

That depends on a lot of factors... such as how strong the radiation is and what type of radiation. It also depends on what type of organism... some bacteria even feed off of radiation. As a human though, you should always make sure to cover up in the sun though!

- Answer provided by Dr. Monique Haakensen

What causes DNA cell mutations? How does a mutated chromosome turn into a disorder?

So DNA can be mutated by exposure to chemicals and/or radiation, or by mistakes when the molecule is copied during cell division. Such a mutation might or might not cause a disorder, but if the change causes either a misshapen protein, or no protein at all, the loss of that protein could create a disorder.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

Can you explain how sunlight both causes skin cancer and is required for the body's normal repair processes. What are the implications in sunscreen choices?

The ultraviolet rays in sunlight directly damage the constituent parts of our DNA. This damage is mutagenic, meaning it can change the sequence of our DNA code. These mutations, if in the 'right place at the right time' can alter how our genes work, which may lead to cancer. More UV sunlight = more mutations = greater chance of skin cancer. This is why UV tanning beds are a perfect storm for melanoma production. I'd always recommend using the strongest sunscreen possible, especially if you are fair-skinned.

- Answer provided by Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

Do you see an increase in genetic mutations because of a certain chemical in our environment? If so, which one?

I suspect that there are higher loads of mutation caused by many chemicals in the environment, but some of the classic ones are benzene, chimney soot (which caused cancer in chimney sweeps in the 19th century), coal tar and many, many others. The controversy today is figuring out which modern chemicals do the same thing.

- Answer provided by Jay Ingram

Is there certain lifestyle changes that one can make to help prevent certain genetic mutations?

A healthy lifestyle (good nutrition, exercise, rest) is a great way to help prevent general "wear and tear" on the body and help your cellular machinery to stay on top of things. However, "genetic mutations" are not something that normally affects adults in any negative way other than potentially giving rise to cancers. Rather, genetic mutations are normally of concern in somatic cells.

- Answer provided by Dr. Monique Haakensen

Is there any evidence of mammograms causing damage to DNA?

Saying that, there are standards of care for types of cancer, eg. brain versus ovarian versus lung. These are often dictated by the nature of that tissue. Not hugely - certainly not as much as the risk from frequent CT scans, which involved significantly higher radiation doses.

- Answer provided by Dr. Aaron Goodarzi

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