Largest ever genome-wide study strengthens genetic link to obesity

Feb. 12, 2015

Researchers are homing in on genetic reasons why people gain different amounts of weight and why fat becomes stored in different parts of their bodies. Their findings, part of the largest genome-wide study to date, were published in two companion papers recently in the journal Nature.

Analyzing genetic samples from more than 300,000 individuals to study obesity and body fat distribution, researchers in the international Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) Consortium completed the largest study of genetic variation to date, and found more than 140 locations across the genome that play roles in various obesity traits.

By applying novel computational methods to the genetic results, they discovered new biological pathways that are important in controlling body weight and fat distribution. This work is the first step toward finding individual genes that play key roles in body shape and size. The proteins these genes help produce could become targets for future drug development.

The genetic locations associated with fat depots are associated with genes previously identified as being important for the creation of adipose tissue. Researchers also determined that 19 of the fat distribution genetic locations had a stronger effect in women; one had a stronger effect in men. Further, the researchers found that the genetic locations associated with body mass index (BMI) are probably involved in neural processes, specifically brain signaling, that control appetite and energy use.

The researchers note that while some genes involved in obesity could already have been implicated in other aspects of human health, others could be part of novel pathways that are not yet understood. A better understanding of their functions related to body fat and obesity could provide a better picture of the roles these genes play in a variety of diseases.

Read the study abstract on the Nature website