Smoke 50 cigarettes, you earn one DNA mutation per lung cell. Smoke a pack a day for a year, the bill comes to 150 mutations per cell, and not only in your lungs.
That’s the new math of self-destruction, and the research that tallied the damage has opened the door to understanding the effects of our vices in an entirely new way.
We’ve known for decades that cigarette smoking is linked to cancer (17 types of cancer, at minimum), but the latest analysis is the first to show damage quantified at the level of DNA. Researchers compared DNA in tumors from 2,500 smokers and 1,000 non-smokers, which allowed them to calculate an average number of mutations linked to smoking.
For those with a pack-a-day habit, the average level of damage is 150 DNA mutations per lung cell, 97 per larynx cell, 18 per bladder cell and six per liver cell. Quitting prevents new mutations but won’t delete those already there, said the researchers in a report published in Science.
Aside from revealing more about the toxic typhoon smoking unleashes on cells, the research ushers in a new era of more precisely identifying what various chemicals are doing to our bodies. It’s reasonable to assume that similar research will tally the cellular effects of habitually drinking alcohol, which is linked to at least seven types of cancer.
Beyond behaviors we chose to indulge, there’s also a role for research to quantify DNA damage linked to air pollution. We know enough now to conclusively link pollution to everything from cancer to potential brain impairment, but linking to molecular-level damage would clarify how much and what type of exposure leads to the worst outcomes.
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The latest study was published in the journal Science