In genetics, a mutagen (Latin, literally origin of change) is a physical or chemical agent that changes the genetic material, usually DNA, of an organism and thus increases the frequency of mutations above the natural background level. As many mutations cause cancer, mutagens are therefore also likely to be carcinogens. Not all mutations are caused by mutagens: so-called "spontaneous mutations" occur due to spontaneous hydrolysis, errors in DNA replication, repair and recombination.
The first mutagens to be identified were carcinogens, substances that were shown to be linked to cancer. Tumors were described more than 2,000 years before the discovery of chromosomes and DNA; in 500 B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates named tumors resembling a crab karkinos (from which the word "cancer" is derived via Latin), meaning crab. In 1567, Swiss physician Paracelsus suggested unidentified substance in mined ore (identified as radon gas in modern times) caused a wasting disease in miners, and in England, in 1761, John Hill made the first direct link of cancer to chemical substances by noting that excessive use of snuff may cause nasal cancer. In 1775, Sir Percivall Pott wrote a paper on the high incidence of scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps, and suggested chimney soot as the cause of scrotal cancer. In 1915, Yamagawa and Ichikawa showed that repeated application of coal tar to rabbit's ears produced malignant cancer. Subsequently in the 1930s the carcinogen component in coal tar was identified as a polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), benzo[a]pyrene. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons are also present in soot, which was suggested to be a causative agent of cancer over 150 years earlier.
The mutagenic property of mutagens was first demonstrated in 1927, when Hermann Muller discovered that x-rays can cause genetic mutations in fruit flies, producing phenotypic mutants as well as observable changes to the chromosomes. His collaborator Edgar Altenburg also demonstrated the mutational effect of UV radiation in 1928. Muller went on to use x-rays to create Drosophila mutants that he used in his studies of genetics. He also found that X-rays not only mutate genes in fruit flies but also have effects on the genetic makeup of humans. Similar work by Lewis Stadler also showed the mutational effect of X-ray on barley in 1928, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation on maize in 1936. The effect of sunlight had previously been noted in the nineteenth century where rural outdoor workers and sailors were found to be more prone to skin cancer.
Chemical mutagens were not demonstrated to cause mutation until the 1940s, when Charlotte Auerbach and J. M. Robson found that mustard gas can cause mutations in fruit flies. A large number of chemical mutagens have since been identified, especially after the development of the Ames test in 1970s by Bruce Ames that screens for mutagens and allows for preliminary identification of carcinogens. Early studies by Ames showed around 90% of known carcinogens can be identified in Ames test as mutagenic (later studies however gave lower figures), and ~80% of the mutagens identified through Ames test may also be carcinogens. Mutagens are not necessarily carcinogens, and vice versa. Sodium Azide for example may be mutagenic (and highly toxic), but it has not been shown to be carcinogenic.
Mutagens cause changes to the DNA that can affect the transcription and replication of the DNA, which in severe cases can lead to cell death. The mutagen produces mutations in the DNA, and deleterious mutation can result in aberrant, impaired or loss of function for a particular gene, and accumulation of mutations may lead to cancer.