Genes and gene modifications affect health and body weight

Genetics and epigenetics can help to develop novel therapies - Successful science event on epigenetics of civilization diseases in Leipzig.

The genotype of humans determines their appearance and partly also their character. On 46 chromosomes in the human body cells are over 20,000 genes, whose material is the so-called DNA. Scientists already know a lot about gene modifications and consequential diseases, such as trisomy 21. But even if scientists have succeeded to decode the human genome in the year 2000, the function of large parts of the genome is still unknown. A lot of money is being invested in research of human genes and gene modifications in Germany, because this could once lead to novel therapies for diseases such as obesity. The FTO gene (fat mass and obesity-associated gene) is the gene most strongly associated with obesity (adiposity). Special variations of this gene result in a higher risk for obesity.

But humans are not “slaves of their genes”, because environment, lifestyle, education and experiences (e.g. psychological trauma) affect us and our genes. So can gene functions be activated and deactivated by chemical reactions at the DNA (e.g. methylation). In contrast to gene mutations (modifications of the DNA), epigenetic processes do not modify the DNA. Epigenetic changes like methylation are considered as adjustment mechanism of humans to live conditions, which can be also inherited to following generations. Therefore, epigenetic gene modifications can increase the susceptibility to certain diseases within a family. These exciting phenomena are being examined by epigenetics.

Successful special event to the epigenetic of civilization diseases in Leipzig

In late May, over 70 epigenetic junior scientists from Germany, Europe and South-Africa met and discussed the correlation between epigenetic mechanisms and widespread diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, arteriosclerosis and cancer. The fields of research that examine the role of epigenetic factors in the development, course (etiopathology) and heredity of diseases increase rapidly. At the Integrated Research and Treatment Center (IFB) AdiposityDiseases is therefore a junior research group scrutinising functional genetics of obesity, headed by Dr. Yvonne Böttcher. She co-organized the event in May (Spring School: Epigenetics of Civilization Diseases); she underlines: “Especially for obesity the group of researchers by Julia Zierath from Swedish Karolinska Institute, showed how methylation returned to normal levels due to weight reduction. Especially interesting for the participants were the issues associated with obesity respectively psychological trauma. Special highlights were the presentations of Romain Barres (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) and Torsten Klengel (Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich/Germany). They impressively described epigenetics as a link between environmental factors and the genetic basic layout.

Epigenetic research is naturally very interdisciplinary, as it involves scientific fields such as molecular biology, genetics, epidemiology, medicine and bioinformatics and systems biology. Therefore, scientific exchange and cooperation are very important. “The IFB wants to expand its cooperation with Romain Barres to deepen research especially in the field of obesity.” said biologist Dr. Böttcher.

14 German and European experts spoke at the Spring School about the following priorities:

  •     Biochemical basics of the epigenetic
  •     Epigenetics in aging processes and theoretical concepts
  •     DNA methylation: How can it be analyzed and how does it affect metabolism and health?
  •     Epigenetics affect health and disease overall – from cancer to psychological trauma
  •     Analysis techniques and epigenetics in psychiatric diseases

(Further information)

The special event has been organized by IFB AdiposityDiseases, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioinformatics (IZBI) and Leipzig Research Center for Civilization Diseases (LIFE). The participants evaluated the event with top marks.

The contributors:

1.) Dr. Vijay Tiwari from the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) at the University Mainz informed to the topic of “Epigenetic Regulation of Cellular Differentiation”
2.) Dr. Romain Barres from the University Copenhagen and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Centre for Basic Metabolic Research in Copenhagen (Denmark) explained the section of „DNA methylation within psychological activity”
3.) Prof. François Képès from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), University of Evry (France) discussed with the participants the epigenetic information in bacteria.
4.) Prof. Gunter Reuter from the University of Halle/Saale, Institute for biology, gave a lecture on epigenetic research in model systems like Drosophilia.
5.) Very interesting were the remarks of Prof. Hartmut Geiger from the Department for dermatology and allergies at the University Hospital Ulm to the correlation between aging native cells and epigenetic changes.
6.) Dr. Michael Weber from the University Strasbourg (France) described the role of DNA methylation at the evolution of mammals.

Keywords: events, causes of obesity