Circulating nucleic acids; DNA damage; ageing; cancer
It has been estimated that 1011–1012 cells, primarily of haematogenous origin, die in the adult human body daily, and a similar number is regenerated to maintain homeostasis. Despite the presence of an efficient scavenging system for dead cells, considerable amounts of fragmented genetic material enter the circulation in healthy individuals. Elevated blood levels of extracellular nucleic acids have been reported in various disease conditions; such as ageing and age-related degenerative disorders, cancer; acute and chronic inflammatory conditions, severe trauma and autoimmune disorders. In addition to genomic DNA and nucleosomes, mitochondrial DNA is also found in circulation, as are RNA and microRNA. There is extensive literature that suggests that extraneously added nucleic acids have biological actions. They can enter into cells in vitro and in vivo and induce genetic transformation and cellular and chromosomal damage; and experimentally added nucleic acids are capable of activating both innate and adaptive immune systems and inducing a sterile inflammatory response. The possibility as to whether circulating nucleic acids may, likewise, have biological activities has not been explored. In this review we raise the question as to whether circulating nucleic acids may have damaging effects on the host and be implicated in ageing and diverse acute and chronic human pathologies.