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Gene–environment interactions, folate metabolism and the embryonic nervous system

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Formation of brain and spinal cord requires the successful closure of neural ectoderm into an embryonic neural tube. Defects in this process result in anencephaly or spina bifida, which together constitute a leading cause of mortality and morbidity in children, affecting all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The subject of intensive research for decades, neural tube defects (NTDs), are understood to arise from complex interactions of genes and environmental conditions, though systems‐level details are still elusive. Despite the variety of underlying causes, a single intervention, folic acid supplementation given in the first gestational month, can measurably reduce the occurrence of NTDs in a population. Evidence for and the scope of gene‐environment interactions in the genesis of NTDs is discussed. A systems‐based approach is now possible toward studies of genetic and environmental influences underlying NTDs that will enable the assessment of individual risk and personalized optimization of prevention. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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Figure 1.

Folate metabolism and its contributions to physiological processes. One carbon metabolism in the cytoplasm is depicted. Colors: blue, enzymes catalyzing folate metabolic steps; red, important products of the pathway; magenta, physiological processes which pathway products support. THF, tetrahydrofolate; DHF, dihydrofolate; dUMP, deoxyuridine‐monophosphate; Ado‐met, S‐adenosylmethionine; Ado‐hcy, S‐adenosylhomocysteine; BH4, tetrahydrobiopterin; qBH2, quinonoid dihydrobiopterin; PtdMME, phosphatidylethanolamine (monomethyl); PtdDME, phosphatidylethanolamine (dimethyl); PEMT, phosphatidylethanolamine methyltransferase. FTHFS, 10‐formyltetrahydrofolate synthase; MTHFC, methyltetrahydrofolate cyclohydrolase; MTHFD, methyltetrahydrofolate dehydrogenase; MTHFR, methyltetrahydrofolate reductase; MS, methionine synthase; cSHMT, cytoplasmic serine hydroxymethyltransferase; DHFR, dihydrofolate reductase; TS, thymidylate synthase.

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Merryn Tawhai

Merryn Tawhai

Dr. Tawhai is PI for lung modeling activities at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and adjunct Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Iowa. Her research centers on developing multi-scale and multi-physics computational models of structure and function in the lung. A theme that runs through all of her work is the relationship between regional changes in lung structure or function and standard integrated measurements of the lung that are made at the mouth.

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