RNA-Seq Provides New Insights in the Transcriptome Responses Induced by the Carcinogen Benzo[a]pyrene

Joost van Delft*, Stan Gaj, Matthias Lienhard, Marcus W. Albrecht, Alexander Kirpiy, Karen Brauers, Sandra Claessen, Daneida Lizarraga, Hans Lehrach, Ralf Herwig, Jos Kleinjans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Whole-genome transcriptome measurements are pivotal for characterizing molecular mechanisms of chemicals and predicting toxic classes, such as genotoxicity and carcinogenicity, from in vitro and in vivo assays. In recent years, deep sequencing technologies have been developed that hold the promise of measuring the transcriptome in a more complete and unbiased manner than DNA microarrays. Here, we applied this RNA-seq technology for the characterization of the transcriptomic responses in HepG2 cells upon exposure to benzo[a]pyrene (BaP), a well-known DNA damaging human carcinogen. Based on EnsEMBL genes, we demonstrate that RNA-seq detects ca 20% more genes than microarray-based technology but almost threefold more significantly differentially expressed genes. Functional enrichment analyses show that RNA-seq yields more insight into the biology and mechanisms related to the toxic effects caused by BaP, i.e., two- to fivefold more affected pathways and biological processes. Additionally, we demonstrate that RNA-seq allows detecting alternative isoform expression in many genes, including regulators of cell death and DNA repair such as TP53, BCL2 and XPA, which are relevant for genotoxic responses. Moreover, potentially novel isoforms were found, such as fragments of known transcripts, transcripts with additional exons, intron retention or exon-skipping events. The biological function(s) of these isoforms remain for the time being unknown. Finally, we demonstrate that RNA-seq enables the investigation of allele-specific gene expression, although no changes could be observed. Our results provide evidence that RNA-seq is a powerful tool for toxicology, which, compared with microarrays, is capable of generating novel and valuable information at the transcriptome level for characterizing deleterious effects caused by chemicals.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)427-439
JournalToxicological Sciences
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012


  • RNA-seq
  • chemical carcinogenesis
  • gene expression profiling
  • microarrays
  • DNA-reactive agents


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