A normal healthy genome appears as two equivalent masses of DNA, following replication, inside each cell. When there has been damage or deterioration we see extra fragments of DNA in the cell.

The cell on the left is normal but the one on the right shows signs of genetic damage. The damaged DNA appears as six micronuclei in the cell.

The genome health and nutrigenomics project

The genome health and nutrigenomics project is developing reliable techniques for assessing DNA damage using minimally invasive methods.

  • 7 November 2007 | Updated 16 February 2012

Project summary

The genome health and nutrigenomics project, led by CSIRO researcher Dr Michael Fenech, develops and exploits a reliable technique for assessing genetic damage by measuring micronuclei, nuclear anomalies and cell death in human cells such as lymphocytes and mouth epithelial cells.

Genetic damage can occur through exposure to certain types of radiation or chemicals, micronutrient deficiency or even naturally as part of the ageing process.

The resulting mutation of DNA has been shown to increase the risk of developmental defects, and accelerate the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases of old age.

Current activities

The micronucleus assay, together with other molecular and cytogenetic markers (for example, telomere length, aneuploidy and DNA methylation) is being applied to:

  • establish acceptable levels of genetic damage in human populations
  • monitor increases in genetic damage following accidental, occupational or therapeutic exposure to carcinogens
  • screen new pharmaceuticals and other chemicals to ensure their safety for human use and the environment
  • identify individuals with abnormal sensitivity to genotoxic chemicals and radiation
  • identify dietary chemicals, vitamins and minerals that can protect against spontaneous and radiation-induced DNA damage
  • determine nutritional requirements for genome health based on genetic background.

The outcomes

The micronucleus assay could help identify people who are likely to develop cancer or Alzheimer's disease.

It can also be used to predict the radiation-sensitivity of normal tissue and tumours, which may assist in developing more effective, personalised radiotherapy treatments for cancer patients. 

Results from this project are also helping to establish recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) that could reduce risk of damage to DNA.

Another objective of this project is to develop improved methods for micronucleus detection and assessment including mathematical modelling.

This information is being used to:

  • optimise automated procedures, using flow cytometry or image analysis
  • improve the speed and efficiency of micronucleus measurements in cells from the lining of the mouth.

An important research focus is the role of folic acid and vitamin B12, and mutations in genes that control their activity, in preventing DNA damage.

Results from this project are helping to establish recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) aimed at reducing the risk of damage to DNA.

The concept of RDAs for genomic stability was developed in this project.

More information

Dr Fenech, as leader of this research, is the current Chairman of the HUMN project, an international collaborative study of micronucleus frequencies in human populations, involving more than 40 laboratories worldwide.

We are also developing tailored culture media for genome stability maintenance of bovine stem cells for a project in the Food Futures National Research Flagship.

Watch an interview with Dr Michael Fenech in DNA Doctor: Catalyst, ABC interview (Video).