The Mutagenic Impact of Environmental Exposures in Human Cells and Cancer: Imprints Through Time

Axel Rosendahl Huber, Arne Van Hoeck, Ruben Van Boxtel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


During life, the DNA of our cells is continuously exposed to external damaging processes. Despite the activity of various repair mechanisms, DNA damage eventually results in the accumulation of mutations in the genomes of our cells. Oncogenic mutations are at the root of carcinogenesis, and carcinogenic agents are often highly mutagenic. Over the past decade, whole genome sequencing data of healthy and tumor tissues have revealed how cells in our body gradually accumulate mutations because of exposure to various mutagenic processes. Dissection of mutation profiles based on the type and context specificities of the altered bases has revealed a variety of signatures that reflect past exposure to environmental mutagens, ranging from chemotherapeutic drugs to genotoxic gut bacteria. In this review, we discuss the latest knowledge on somatic mutation accumulation in human cells, and how environmental mutagenic factors further shape the mutation landscapes of tissues. In addition, not all carcinogenic agents induce mutations, which may point to alternative tumor-promoting mechanisms, such as altered clonal selection dynamics. In short, we provide an overview of how environmental factors induce mutations in the DNA of our healthy cells and how this contributes to carcinogenesis. A better understanding of how environmental mutagens shape the genomes of our cells can help to identify potential preventable causes of cancer.

Original languageEnglish
Article number760039
Pages (from-to)760039
JournalFrontiers in genetics
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • cancer
  • environmental carcinogens
  • genomics
  • mutagens
  • mutational signatures


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