Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) is the physiologically important target for organophosphorus toxicants (OP) including nerve agents and pesticides. Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) in blood serves as a bioscavenger that protects AChE in nerve synapses from inhibition by OP. Mass spectrometry methods can detect exposure to OP by measuring adducts on the active site serine of plasma BChE. Genetic variants of human AChE and BChE do exist, but loss of function mutations have been identified only in the BCHE gene. The most common AChE variant, His353Asn (H322N), also known as the Yt blood group antigen, has normal AChE activity. The most common BChE variant, Ala567Thr (A539T) or the K-variant in honor of Werner Kalow, has 33% reduced plasma BChE activity. The genetic variant most frequently associated with prolonged response to muscle relaxants, Asp98Gly (D70G) or atypical BChE, has reduced activity and reduced enzyme concentration. Early studies in young, healthy males, performed at a time when it was legal to test nerve agents in humans, showed that individuals responded differently to the same low dose of sarin with toxic symptoms ranging in severity from minimal to moderate. Additionally, animal studies indicated that BChE protects from toxicants that have a higher reactivity with AChE than with BChE (e.g., nerve agents) but not from toxicants that have a higher reactivity with BChE than with AChE (e.g., OP pesticides). As a corollary, we hypothesize that individuals with genetic variants of BChE may be at increased risk of toxicity from nerve agents but not from OP pesticides.
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