Background: Exposure to air pollution exerts direct effects on respiratory organs; however, molecular alterations underlying air pollution-induced pulmonary injury remain unclear. In this study, we investigated the effect of air pollution on the lung tissues of Sprague-Dawley rats with whole-body exposure to traffic-related PM1 (particulate matter < 1 μm in aerodynamic diameter) pollutants and compared it with that in rats exposed to high-efficiency particulate air–filtered gaseous pollutants and clean air controls for 3 and 6 months. Lung function and histological examinations were performed along with quantitative proteomics analysis and functional validation. Results: Rats in the 6-month PM1-exposed group exhibited a significant decline in lung function, as determined by decreased FEF25–75% and FEV20/FVC; however, histological analysis revealed earlier lung damage, as evidenced by increased congestion and macrophage infiltration in 3-month PM1-exposed rat lungs. The lung tissue proteomics analysis identified 2673 proteins that highlighted the differential dysregulation of proteins involved in oxidative stress, cellular metabolism, calcium signalling, inflammatory responses, and actin dynamics under exposures to PM1 and gaseous pollutants. The presence of PM1 specifically enhanced oxidative stress and inflammatory reactions under subchronic exposure to traffic-related PM1 and suppressed glucose metabolism and actin cytoskeleton signalling. These factors might lead to repair failure and thus to lung function decline after chronic exposure to traffic-related PM1. A detailed pathogenic mechanism was proposed to depict temporal and dynamic molecular regulations associated with PM1- and gaseous pollutants-induced lung injury. Conclusion: This study explored several potential molecular features associated with early lung damage in response to traffic-related air pollution, which might be used to screen individuals more susceptible to air pollution.
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