The genetic information of people who smoke present distinctive characteristics. In particular, previous research has revealed differences in patterns of DNA methylation, a type of chemical modification that helps cells switch certain genes on or off. However, most of these studies could not establish for sure whether these changes were caused by smoking, predisposed individuals to smoke, or were driven by underlying genetic variation in the DNA sequence itself.
To investigate this question, van Dongen et al. examined DNA methylation data from the blood cells of over 700 pairs of identical twins. These individuals share the exact same genetic information, making it possible to better evaluate the impact of lifestyle on DNA modifications.
The analyses identified differences in methylation at 13 DNA locations in pairs of twins where one was a current smoker and their sibling had never smoked. Two of the genes code for proteins involved in the response to nicotine, the primary addictive chemical in cigarette smoke. The differences were smaller if one of the twins had stopped smoking, suggesting that quitting can help to reverse some of these changes.
These findings confirm that DNA methylation in blood cells is influenced by cigarette smoke, which could help to better understand smoking-associated diseases. They also demonstrate how useful identical twins studies can be to identify methylation changes that are markers of lifestyle.