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© 2018 Harmon et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Particulate matter (PM) is emitted during the combustion of fuels and wastes. PM exposure exacerbates pulmonary diseases, and the mechanism may involve oxidative stress. At lower combustion temperatures such as occurs in the cool zone of a flame, aromatic compounds chemisorb to the surface of metal-oxide-containing PM, resulting in the formation of surface-stabilized environmentally persistent free radicals (EPFR). Prior studies showed that PM-containing EPFR redox cycle to produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), and after inhalation, EPFR induce pulmonary inflammation and oxidative stress. Our objective was to elucidate mechanisms linking EPFR-induced oxidant injury with increased cytokine production by pulmonary epithelial cells. We thus treated human bronchial epithelial cells with EPFR at sub-toxic doses and measured ROS and cytokine production. To assess aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) activity, cells were transfected with a luciferase reporter for xenobiotic response element activation. To test whether cytokine production was dependent upon AhR activation or oxidative stress, some cells were co-treated with an antioxidant or an AhR antagonist. EPFR increased IL-6 release in an ROS and AhR- and oxidant-dependent manner. Moreover, EPFR induced an AhR activation that was dependent upon oxidant production, since antioxidant co-treatment blocked AhR activation. On the other hand, EPFR treatment increased a cellular ROS production that was at least partially attenuated by AhR knockdown using siRNA. While AhR activation was correlated with an increased expression of oxidant-producing enzymes like cytochrome P450 CYP1A1, it is possible that AhR activation is both a cause and effect of EPFR-induced ROS. Finally, lipid oxidation products also induced AhR activation. ROS-dependent AhR activation may be a mechanism for altered epithelial cell responses after EPFR exposure, potentially via formation of bioactive lipid or protein oxidation products.

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