Metabolic pathways altered by air pollutant exposure in association with lipid profiles in young adults

Jiawen Liao, Jesse Goodrich, Douglas I. Walker, Yan Lin, Fred Lurmann, Chenyu Qiu, Dean P. Jones, Frank Gilliland, Lida Chazi, Zhanghua Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mounting evidence suggests that air pollution influences lipid metabolism and dyslipidemia. However, the metabolic mechanisms linking air pollutant exposure and altered lipid metabolism is not established. In year 2014–2018, we conducted a cross-sectional study on 136 young adults in southern California, and assessed lipid profiles (triglycerides, total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol, very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL)-cholesterol), and untargeted serum metabolomics using liquid chromatography-high-resolution mass spectrometry, and one-month and one-year averaged exposures to NO2, O3, PM2.5 and PM10 air pollutants at residential addresses. A metabolome-wide association analysis was conducted to identify metabolomic features associated with each air pollutant. Mummichog pathway enrichment analysis was used to assess altered metabolic pathways. Principal component analysis (PCA) was further conducted to summarize 35 metabolites with confirmed chemical identity. Lastly, linear regression models were used to analyze the associations of metabolomic PC scores with each air pollutant exposure and lipid profile outcome. In total, 9309 metabolomic features were extracted, with 3275 features significantly associated with exposure to one-month or one-year averaged NO2, O3, PM2.5 and PM10 (p < 0.05). Metabolic pathways associated with air pollutants included fatty acid, steroid hormone biosynthesis, tryptophan, and tyrosine metabolism. PCA of 35 metabolites identified three main PCs which together explained 44.4% of the variance, representing free fatty acids and oxidative byproducts, amino acids and organic acids. Linear regression indicated that the free fatty acids and oxidative byproducts-related PC score was associated with air pollutant exposure and outcomes of total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol (p < 0.05). This study suggests that exposure to NO2, O3, PM2.5 and PM10 contributes to increased level of circulating free fatty acids, likely through increased adipose lipolysis, stress hormone and response to oxidative stress pathways. These alterations were associated with dysregulation of lipid profiles and potentially could contribute to dyslipidemia and other cardiometabolic disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Article number121522
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
StatePublished - 15 Jun 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Air pollution
  • Cardiometabolic health
  • Lipolysis
  • Metabolomics
  • Pathway analysis


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