At the University of Virginia, researchers have discovered 14 genes that cause obesity and three that can prevent it.
As many as four in ten Americans are obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, putting them at risk for ailments ranging from strokes and heart attacks to diabetes and bad joints.
Obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30 or more or, more simply, being 20 percent or more above the ideal weight for your height.
Body mass index is calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of the person’s height in meters.
In the past, scientists have spotted hundreds of genes linked to obesity, but the Virginia team decided to find the ones that really matter.
To help, they enlisted a worm called C. elegans, a trusty research partner that shares 70 percent of human genes and, like us, gets fat if it eats too much sugar.
The biologists fed one group of worms a regular diet, mostly rotting vegetation, and another group a diet that included a lot of high-fructose corn syrup, a prime villain in making people obese.
Using automated machine learning on a computerized model of worm obesity, the scientists turned on and off 293 genes known to have some relation to obesity in humans as well as in the worms. They gradually sifted out 14 that are crucial in making people obese as well as three that guard against excess weight.
By expressing or repressing the various genes, scientists were able to control weight gain in worms on the worse diet, including enabling them to live longer, move better, and maintain normal neural function.
Genetically manipulating just one of the genes enabled the worms to avoid excess weight gain, maintain their sensitivity to insulin, and maintain lower blood sugar levels.
The work suggests approaches to drug design that can help obese people lose weight without having their stomachs stapled.
TRENDPOST: Drugs that manipulate “fat genes” will be a boon for people who become obese due to reactions to maintenance drugs or to genetic abnormalities—or for people who prove helplessly addicted to the Standard American Diet of processed foods, white flour, junk food, and the array of sugars that pervade our groceries.