Lisa Barcellos Works to Uncover Biological Effects of Exposure to Wildfire Smoke

June 10, 2024
By: Nadia Lathan, Berkeley Public Health
wildfire aerial view

UC Berkeley Epidemiology and Computational Biology Professor Lisa Barcellos has received $1.46 million to study how wildfire smoke affects the DNA of people living in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The grant is supported by VoLo Foundation, an organization dedicated to understanding climate change and its long-term effects, and facilitating solutions to address it..

Barcellos and her team, including researchers from Sonoma Technology, the National Human Genome Research Institute, and Stanford University, will examine samples from 5,000 adults in the East Bay at two time points in 2020 and 2021–coinciding with the largest wildfire year in California history—to identify and characterize changes to the “epigenome.”

Our epigenome consists of DNA changes that don’t alter the sequence itself, but can influence how genes are turned on or off. These changes are often caused by environmental exposures.

“Wildfires are becoming more common in a warming environment, and understanding their impact on the epigenome is vital,” said VoLo Foundation founders David S. Vogel and Thais Lopez Vogel in a statement. “We believe that this research could provide more predictive insights into future disease risks than traditional biomarkers.”

Wildfires are a frequent problem in California and can harm the body at a molecular level. Exposure to wildfire smoke can increase the risk of poor health outcomes including stroke, heart attack, and heart disease. That’s because the smoke contains fine particles called PM2.5, a pollutant expected to increase by up to 190% by 2100 in the United States. Barcellos and her team will study how these particles might cause changes in genomes and influence gene expression.

“Our team is made up of environmental engineers, genetic epidemiologists, and environmental health experts using the latest methods in molecular biology and exposure analysis,” said Dr. Barcellos. “The results from this research have potential to shed light on how wildfire smoke affects our biology and health.”

New research shows these DNA modifications called epigenetic changes are linked to cancer, biological aging, heart and lung diseases, and autoimmune disorders. However, more research is needed to understand how wildfire smoke specifically affects the epigenome.