Key Laboratory of Environment and Health, Ministry of Education & Ministry of Environmental Protection, and State Key Laboratory of Environmental Health (Incubating), School of Public Health, Tongji Medical College, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, 430030, PR China. Electronic address: [Email]
(-)-Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) found in tea is a natural activator of nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2), a primary regulator of the cellular defense system. The adverse health effects resulting from methylmercury (MeHg) exposure in humans are of worldwide concern. We hypothesized that EGCG could induce a Nrf2-mediated protective response to antagonize MeHg toxicity. Using the Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) nematode model, we observed that EGCG activated SKN-1 (the functional ortholog of Nrf2 in C. elegans), as shown by the increased skn-1 mRNA level, induction of the gene gst-4, and enhanced SKN-1-mediated oxidative stress resistance that were indicated by elevation of total antioxidant ability and reductions in reactive oxygen species and malondialdehyde. Following exposure to MeHg, EGCG-treated C. elegans displayed increased survival rates, improved locomotion behaviors, decreased numbers of damaged neurons, and reduced oxidative damage compared to the controls. Moreover, the protective effects of EGCG against MeHg toxicity were counteracted by RNA-mediated interference of skn-1. These results demonstrated that EGCG could alleviate MeHg toxicity by upregulating the SKN-1-regulated protective response in C. elegans. Our study suggests a potentially beneficial effect of targeting Nrf2 by dietary EGCG in protecting humans against MeHg toxicity.