High variation in telomere length between individuals is already present before birth and is as wide among newborns as in adults. Environmental exposures likely have an impact on this observation, but remain largely unidentified. We hypothesize that placental telomere length in twins is associated with residential traffic exposure, an important environmental source of free radicals that might accelerate aging. Next, we intend to unravel the nature-nurture contribution to placental telomere length by estimating the heritability of placental telomere length.
We measured the telomere length in placental tissues of 211 twins in the East Flanders Prospective Twin Survey. Maternal traffic exposure was determined using a geographic information system. Additionally, we estimated the relative importance of genetic and environmental sources of variance.
In this twin study, a variation in telomere length in the placental tissue was mainly determined by the common environment. Maternal residential proximity to a major road was associated with placental telomere length: a doubling in the distance to the nearest major road was associated with a 5.32% (95% CI: 1.90 to 8.86%; p=0.003) longer placental telomere length at birth. In addition, an interquartile increase (22%) in maternal residential surrounding greenness (5 km buffer) was associated with an increase of 3.62% (95% CI: 0.20 to 7.15%; p=0.04) in placental telomere length.
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In conclusion, we showed that maternal residential proximity to traffic and lower residential surrounding greenness is associated with shorter placental telomere length at birth. This may explain a significant proportion of air pollution-related adverse health outcomes starting from early life, since shortened telomeres accelerate the progression of many diseases.