Formaldehyde is a known human and animal carcinogen that forms DNA adducts, and causes mutations. While there is widespread exposure to formaldehyde in the environment, formaldehyde is also an essential biochemical in all living cells. The presence of both endogenous and exogenous sources of formaldehyde makes it difficult to develop exposure-specific DNA biomarkers. Furthermore, chemicals such as nitrosodimethylamine form one mole of formaldehyde for every mole of methylating agent, raising questions about potential cocarcinogenesis. Formaldehyde-induced hydroxymethyl DNA adducts are not stable and need to be reduced to stable methyl adducts for detection, which adds another layer of complexity to identifying the origins of these adducts. In this study, highly sensitive mass spectrometry methods and isotope labeled compounds were used to differentiate between endogenous and exogenous hydroxymethyl and methyl DNA adducts. We demonstrate that N 2-hydroxymethyl-dG is the primary DNA adduct formed in cells following formaldehyde exposure. In addition, we show that alkylating agents induce methyl adducts at N 2-dG and N 6-dA positions, which are identical to the reduced forms of hydroxymethyl adducts arising from formaldehyde. The use of highly sensitive LC-MS/MS and isotope labeled compounds for exposure solves these challenges and provides mechanistic insights on the formation and role of these DNA adducts.
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