Aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) is classically known to be activated by xenobiotics such as dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Although it has been reported that PAHs are contained in roasted coffee beans, in general coffee beverages are not considered to be AhR activators. We tested whether exposure to coffee would activate AhR in cultured cells.
HepG2 cells stably expressing an AhR-responsive reporter gene were treated with coffee samples. Also, expression of CYP1A1, an endogenous AhR-responsive gene, was quantitated by RT-PCR and Western blotting in HepG2, Caco-2, and MCF-7 cells, after treatment with coffee. In order to obtain sensitive and reproducible results, all the experiments were performed with the cells placed in either phosphate-buffered saline (PBS) or pure serum, instead of routinely-used culture medium, whose intrinsic AhR-stimulating activity turned out to be so strong as to interfere with the analyses.
All the coffee samples tested robustly stimulated AhR-mediated transcription in the reporter gene assays. Of note, to what extent coffee and other AhR agonists activated AhR was different, depending on whether the experiments were done in PBS or serum. CYP1A1 mRNA was induced by coffee, in HepG2, Caco-2, and MCF-7 cells placed in either PBS or serum. CYP1A1 protein expression, which was not detected in these cells incubated in PBS, was also increased by coffee in cells placed in serum.
By using culture medium-free experimental settings, we have shown that coffee is a strong AhR activator. Our observation may help elucidate as-yet-unrecognized effects of coffee on human health.