We are told that we are in control of our weight, and that if we eat healthily and exercise obesity shouldn’t be an issue  But recent research at MIT and Harvard Medical School suggests this is only a portion of the truth.

By Phoebe Vowles-Webb

There is a master gene, called FTO, that directly links to obesity. Not only does this gene affect a person’s appetite, but it controls whether fat cells burn or store energy. It works by turning off and on other genes that direct fat cell behaviour. MIT Professor Kellis and his team found that by mimicking FTO’s job and manipulating these other genes, they could stop mice gaining weight despite feeding them a fatty diet. They plan to tinker further to see if they can get mice to lose weight.

“There’s a dogma that it all depends on appetite and exercise. That it’s your choice, and everything is decided by your brain. We’re showing that your fat cells have a very strong role in all this, independent of the brain.” Professor Manolis Kellis

People have different variations of the FTO, and for some this means that the master gene will get more fat cells to store energy rather than burn it, making them more prone to obesity. For others, their variant of the gene could make it very difficult to gain weight. This has been a growing issue for men recently, as the pressure for men to bulk up and look muscly continues to build. Some men simply can’t gain weight, and this could be cause of the FTO master gene. Skinny guys often endure a lot of open insults, especially from girls, and can suffer from very low self-esteem. It can be harder for these men to keep their temperature regulated, find clothes in their size and feel socially accepted.

It's all in the genes. Obesity could be as much a genetic factor as a lifestyle one.
It’s all in the genes. Obesity could be as much a genetic factor as a lifestyle one.

The discovery that weight is not all down to diet and exercise is pretty revolutionary. Fat shaming is perhaps the most common and least contested form of bullying, and this could be precisely because we believe that weight is down to bad choices and habits, whereas ethnicity and orientation are out of a person’s control. Ricky Gervais is just one who makes sufferers of obesity the butt of his jokes: “They complain, and it’s their own fault”, “it’s not a disease” are just a couple of his choice comments. It’s almost as if fat shamers are trying to punish people suffering from weight problems.

While it is true that obesity is linked to overeating, Kellis’ research suggests that people’s weight is more to do with their genetics rather than their choices. Even people’s appetite and hunger can be attributed to the FTO master gene. With this research, fat shamers and teasers of skinny people alike could be educated, and the bullying and ‘comedy’ reduced.

Furthermore, this could lead to gene therapy for people suffering from weight problems, from both ends of the spectrum. Having FTO gene variants that mean you burn too much fat, or store too much of it, can lead to health problems as well as social exclusion. Potentially, gene therapy could reprogram these master genes so that people could have a healthy amount of fat storage and burn.

Myrte Merkestein is sceptical, however. “Whether these findings will lead to new therapies for obesity is less certain, because it’s likely the switch between fat cells (that burn and that store fat) is set during development of the embryo, and therefore it may already be too late to intervene in adulthood.” This is a definite possibility, which seems to keep in line with the rigid behaviour of some overweight and underweight people’s fat cells. However the success with altering mice’s genes to control their weight suggests a more positive outcome for humans.

Despite the uncertainty of success, it’s important this research continues. Many stand to benefit, whether they suffer from obesity or being skinny. Countless lives could be saved from numerous health problems, as well as from the insults of the ignorant.

Written by Malek Murison

Malek Murison is a freelance tech journalist working closely with clients in the drone industry.

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