Genes, epigenetic regulation and environmental factors: which is the most relevant in developing autoimmune diseases?
Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease, have complex pathogeneses and likely multifactorial etiologies. The current paradigm for understanding their development is that the disease is triggered in genetically-susceptible individuals by exposure to environmental factors. Some of these environmental factors have been specifically identified, while others are hypothesized and not yet proven, and it is likely that most have yet to be identified. One interesting hypothesis is that environmental effects on immune responses could be mediated by changes in epigenetic regulation. Major mechanisms of epigenetic gene regulation include DNA methylation and histone modification. In these cases, gene expression is modified without involving changes in DNA sequence. Epigenetics is a new and interesting research field in autoimmune diseases. We review the roles of genetic factors, epigenetic regulation and the most studied environmental risk factors such as cigarette smoke, crystalline silica, Epstein-Barr virus, and reproductive hormones in the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease.