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Microarray characterization of gene expression changes in blood during acute ethanol exposure

Doris M Kupfer1*, Vicky L White1, David L Strayer2, Dennis J Crouch3 and Dennis Burian1

Author Affiliations

1 Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, AAM 610, Federal Aviation Administration, Bioaeronautical Sciences Research Laboratory, Oklahoma City, OK 73169, USA

2 Department of Psychology 380 S. 1530 E. BEHS 502, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA

3 Utah Toxicology-Expert Services, Sandy, UT 84092, USA

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BMC Medical Genomics 2013, 6:26  doi:10.1186/1755-8794-6-26

Published: 25 July 2013



As part of the civil aviation safety program to define the adverse effects of ethanol on flying performance, we performed a DNA microarray analysis of human whole blood samples from a five-time point study of subjects administered ethanol orally, followed by breathalyzer analysis, to monitor blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to discover significant gene expression changes in response to the ethanol exposure.


Subjects were administered either orange juice or orange juice with ethanol. Blood samples were taken based on BAC and total RNA was isolated from PaxGene™ blood tubes. The amplified cDNA was used in microarray and quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) analyses to evaluate differential gene expression. Microarray data was analyzed in a pipeline fashion to summarize and normalize and the results evaluated for relative expression across time points with multiple methods. Candidate genes showing distinctive expression patterns in response to ethanol were clustered by pattern and further analyzed for related function, pathway membership and common transcription factor binding within and across clusters. RT-qPCR was used with representative genes to confirm relative transcript levels across time to those detected in microarrays.


Microarray analysis of samples representing 0%, 0.04%, 0.08%, return to 0.04%, and 0.02% wt/vol BAC showed that changes in gene expression could be detected across the time course. The expression changes were verified by qRT-PCR.

The candidate genes of interest (GOI) identified from the microarray analysis and clustered by expression pattern across the five BAC points showed seven coordinately expressed groups. Analysis showed function-based networks, shared transcription factor binding sites and signaling pathways for members of the clusters. These include hematological functions, innate immunity and inflammation functions, metabolic functions expected of ethanol metabolism, and pancreatic and hepatic function. Five of the seven clusters showed links to the p38 MAPK pathway.


The results of this study provide a first look at changing gene expression patterns in human blood during an acute rise in blood ethanol concentration and its depletion because of metabolism and excretion, and demonstrate that it is possible to detect changes in gene expression using total RNA isolated from whole blood. The analysis approach for this study serves as a workflow to investigate the biology linked to expression changes across a time course and from these changes, to identify target genes that could serve as biomarkers linked to pilot performance.

Ethanol; Blood; Gene expression; Biomarkers; Microarray