Environment and Gene Interaction: Smoking

Written by:  Ricky • Edited by: Paul Arnold
Published Nov 27, 2008
• Related Guides: Smoking

Smoking, as most people are aware is a major health hazard. However, not all people who smoke tobacco are equally likely to develop cancer or suffer from the effects of smoking. The reason for this could be found in GxE – gene and environment interaction.


The incredible diversity of the human genome results not only in different characteristics and traits between people, but also differences in their susceptibility to develop certain types of diseases when exposed to similar environmental factors.

Many diseases that have a genetic basis cause problems because of the exposure of an individual to specific types of environmental stimuli that interact with the genetic material. We will learn about this gene-environment interaction in this article with specific emphasis on the impact and effects of smoking.

The GxE

In the first flourish of genetics research it was a sort of standard practice to study the genetic causes of diseases separately from the possible environmental effects. But later on it was realized that looking at both together could provide valuable insights. In many cases individuals respond differently to environmental insults based on subtle differences in their genetic set up.

The term GxE is used in this context – namely genetic setup and response to environmental stimuli – and refers to any effects which are observed as a result of their interaction.

The Smoker’s Dilemma

Although it is a well known fact that tobacco smoking in any form is very dangerous for health, research has shown that only a small proportion (15%) of long term tobacco smokers have the tendency to develop lung cancer. But if you are a chain smoker and jump to the conclusion that smoking is safe, let me also tell you that clinical studies also document that smoking causes 90% of all lung cancers with the remaining 10% attributed to other causes.

These statistics can be answered in context of GxE although even now scientists cannot point towards specific sets of genes and how the environment interacts with them to promote lung cancer, or protect against it. However, extensive experiments in this arena have given some generic clues. For example, University of Texas researchers have identified nearly 50 genes on chromosome 6, which could be possible culprits for a particular type of lung cancer. Similar experiments are going on in several institutes and research labs across the globe in pursuit of more answers on the GxE front. In October 2008 research teams from the US and Germany published findings that they had identified 26 genes that when mutated lead to the most common form of lung cancer.

There might come a time in the future when you could simply get a test done from a medical laboratory (before you become addicted to the habit) to find out if you are susceptible to developing cancer from smoking. Though even if this were possible, doctors will always advise that the best way of eliminating the risk of contracting lung cancer from smoking is to do all you can to stay away from the habit.

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