Chinese scientists identify gene that may help protect against obesity

A new study led by Professor Jin Li and Associate Professor Zheng Hongxiang from Fudan University suggests that genetics may play a significant role in protecting against obesity. The study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Genetics and Genomics, identifies a type of mitochondrial DNA prevalent in southern China and Southeast Asia that appears to act as a protective factor against obesity.Study findingsAs per a South China Morning Post report, the research team analyzed 2,877 samples from three independent populations in Guangxi, Jiangsu, and Henan. They discovered that a specific variant group of mitochondrial DNA, named M7, is consistently associated with a decreased risk of obesity. Further analysis identified a subgroup named M7b1a1 as the most likely source of this protective effect.“Mitochondria are often referred to as the cell’s powerhouses, generating 80 to 90 percent of the energy needed for various human behaviors. Mitochondrial function has long been associated with obesity,” wrote Jin.Unlike nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents, mitochondrial DNA is generally inherited only from the mother and is more prone to genetic mutations. This makes it a valuable tool in evolutionary analysis.Historical and evolutionary insightsA 2019 study by Professor Kong Qingpeng from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, found that the M7b1a1 subgroup is mainly distributed in southern China and mainland Southeast Asia, with significant frequencies among southern Han Chinese individuals – about 5 to 14 percent. Jin and his team suggest that decreased mitochondrial function may be why M7b1a1 reduces the risk of obesity, the SCMP report said.“Decreased mitochondrial functions represent less energy conservation and more heat production, which could result in less weight gain,” Jin explained in the paper. The researchers also found that M7b1a1 appears to have undergone population expansion approximately 15,000 years ago.Jin added, “M7b1a1 carriers with greater heat generation may have adapted to the cold climate in the Ice Age well, which may have been evolutionarily advantageous for positive natural selection.”Implications for obesity researchThe study offers new insights into the genetic basis of obesity-related traits, enhancing our understanding of how genetics can influence body fat distribution and obesity risk. These findings could pave the way for more targeted approaches to obesity prevention and treatment, considering genetic factors alongside environmental and lifestyle influences.

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