Publication Date



International Journal of Molecular Sciences


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are leading causes of neurodevelopmental disability. The mechanisms by which alcohol (EtOH) disrupts fetal brain development are incompletely understood, as are the genetic factors that modify individual vulnerability. Because the phenotype abnormalities of FASD are so varied and widespread, we investigated whether fetal exposure to EtOH disrupts ribosome biogenesis and the processing of pre-ribosomal RNAs and ribosome assembly, by determining the effect of exposure to EtOH on the developmental expression of 18S rRNA and its cleaved forms, members of a novel class of short non-coding RNAs (srRNAs). In vitro neuronal cultures and fetal brains (11–22 weeks) were collected according to an IRB-approved protocol. Twenty EtOH-exposed brains from the first and second trimester were compared with ten unexposed controls matched for gestational age and fetal gender. Twenty fetal-brain-derived exosomes (FB-Es) were isolated from matching maternal blood. RNA was isolated using Qiagen RNA isolation kits. Fetal brain srRNA expression was quantified by ddPCR. srRNAs were expressed in the human brain and FB-Es during fetal development. EtOH exposure slightly decreased srRNA expression (1.1-fold; p = 0.03). Addition of srRNAs to in vitro neuronal cultures inhibited EtOH-induced caspase-3 activation (1.6-fold, p = 0.002) and increased cell survival (4.7%, p = 0.034). The addition of exogenous srRNAs reversed the EtOH-mediated downregulation of srRNAs (2-fold, p = 0.002). EtOH exposure suppressed expression of srRNAs in the developing brain, increased activity of caspase-3, and inhibited neuronal survival. Exogenous srRNAs reversed this effect, possibly by stabilizing endogenous srRNAs, or by increasing the association of cellular proteins with srRNAs, modifying gene transcription. Finally, the reduction in 18S rRNA levels correlated closely with the reduction in fetal eye diameter, an anatomical hallmark of FASD. The findings suggest a potential mechanism for EtOH-mediated neurotoxicity via alterations in 18S rRNA processing and the use of FB-Es for early diagnosis of FASD. Ribosome biogenesis may be a novel target to ameliorate FASD in utero or after birth. These findings are consistent with observations that gene–environment interactions contribute to FASD vulnerability.


FASD, brain development, 18S Ribosomal RNA, alcohol, Ribosomal RNA processing, srRNA, neurons, exosomes


PMID: 37762017



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