Exploring the Exposome: How the Environment Impacts Human Biology

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A growing body of research suggests that the environment we are exposed to during our life (exposome) can have a significant impact on our health and risk for developing disease. The combination of all these factors is called the exposome, and researchers are working to better understand how these exposures impact human biology and health. Vasilis Vasiliou, chair of the department of Environmental Health Sciences at Yale University, is one of these researchers.

“The water we drink and the air we breathe might have chemicals we don’t even know,” he said, speaking at the Eastern Analytical Symposium (EAS) in Princeton, NJ on November 13.

Vasiliou and his research group at Yale are examining the exposome and how it impacts the development of diseases such as cancer and liver disease, from gestation to death. Only 5-15% of disease can be attributed to hereditability, he said. The team uses deidentified medical records and other data to explore how outside factors like diet, pollution, infections, and socioeconomic factors impact health.

But how do you go from environmental exposure to the development of disease? Vasiliou said it’s often an interaction between the environment and the human genome. The team collects environmental factors based on satellite data and personal monitors, he said. Factors such as gene methylation, protein changes, and metabolite pathways can all be impacted by the environment.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) also have an impact on the exposome, he said. These contaminants get into the environment through packaging and manufacturing and can be toxic to humans. “I don’t think there’s one of us in this audience who doesn’t have PFAS in our blood stream,” he said at EAS. 


There is a need for scientists to develop better computational tools and analytics to understand the impact of the exposome, Vasiliou said. Wearable technologies and devices that can measure exposure are also needed to improve analysis. Longitudinal studies using these tools will help scientists better determine the impact of the environment on human biology.

However, there are some ethical considerations that scientists must be aware of with these types of studies, he said. Researchers need to develop better methods to address privacy, consent, and data sharing.

Long-term there is an opportunity for collaborations across disciplines and industries. It’s also useful to study the impact of the exposome globally, particularly in blue zones, for example, where people live longer lives.

Vasiliou hopes this research will raise more awareness in the public and increase education on the exposome and its health implications. It’s important, he said, to ensure scientists involve communities in the design of future studies.