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Study By School of Medicine Researchers Links Bacteria, Genetic Makeup and Obesity

Thursday, May 27, 2010

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 Margaret Zupancic, PhD, a research fellow with the Institute for Genome Sciences, presented the study.
 

Bacteria may play more of a role in people predisposed to obesity than previously thought, according to studies presented by University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers at the 110th general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in San Diego on May 26.

"Work currently under way suggests that an interaction between genetic factors and the composition of the bacteria that inhabit the human gut may predispose certain individuals toward obesity," said Margaret Zupancic, PhD, a research fellow with the Institute for Genome Sciences at the School of Medicine, who presented one of the studies. "These results potentially provide insight into the mechanisms by which genetics may predispose some people to obesity. They could also help pave the way toward a future in which genetic screening in conjunction with individually tailored treatments could help people at risk for obesity to maintain a healthy weight."

Zupancic and her colleagues analyzed the gut bacterial communities of lean and obese individuals in the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pa.  For the benefit of such research, their population is relatively homogenous in regard to both genetics and lifestyle. Initially, the researchers found no correlation between the composition of the gut bacteria and obesity, but when they factored in the genetic makeup of the participants, certain patterns began to emerge.

One pattern was a statistically significant correlation between whether the participant carried a given variant of a gene called FTO associated with obesity and the presence of certain bacterial groups in the digestive tract.

The researchers also found that in people with certain genetic variations in taste-receptor genes, a low level of bacterial diversity in the gut correlated with a higher likelihood of obesity, while a high level of bacterial diversity correlated with a lower likelihood of obesity.

"While this work is still at a relatively early stage, results such as these could lead to applications such as probiotic (beneficial bacteria) or antibiotic-based treatments for obesity that could be individualized based on a person's unique genetic and gut microbial makeup," says Zupancic.

The Institute for Genome Sciences (IGS) is an international research center within the University of Maryland School of Medicine led by Claire Fraser-Liggett, PhD, and a team of internationally recognized faculty. Comprised of an inter-disciplinary, multi-department team of investigators, the Institute uses the powerful tools of genomics and bioinformatics to understand genome function in health and disease, to study molecular and cellular networks in a variety of model systems, and to generate data and bioinformatics resources of value to the international scientific community. The scientific discoveries that are being made at IGS are helping to unravel the mysteries of biological systems and to improve health care for people around the world.

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