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  • Hey, wouldn’t it be great to be able to indulge in guilty pleasures like French fries, fried chicken, and pecan pie with ice cream without gaining weight (or guilt)? New genetic research promises to make that possible. As heard on NPR, a team of scientists from several Boston institutions say they have discovered a way to flip a gene to cause your body to burn fat cells it otherwise hoards. This mechanism is short-circuited in many individuals, most of whom tend toward high body mass indexes. It’s a mutation in the “FTO” region of the genome that prevents lipid cells from being consumed in normal metabolism.

    The researchers say that the “switch” they discovered operates at the cellular level, bypassing brain circuitry. That’s interesting because it implies that diet and will power alone isn’t enough to lose fat (of course, exercising helps). They indicate that forty-four percent of Europeans have the mutation (which creates more “white” fat cells, which store energy, versus “beige” fat cells, which burn it), but gave no figures for other populations.

    The experiments were done on mice. The researchers found they could manipulate the rodents’ weight regardless of what food they ate. They also studied human fat cells in vitro and found they responded similarly, but no experiments on whole humans were performed. The radio story said:

    “We experimented on human fat cells,” says Melina Claussnitzer, first author of the paper, a visiting professor at MIT and faculty member at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “And we found that we could flip them from energy-storing to energy-burning by altering the expression of a single gene — and, even more remarkably, by altering a single letter from our 3-billion-letter genome. And we could flip that switch back in either direction.”

    This could be a very big deal. Investors must already be lining up to get a piece of this action. Can you imagine pharma companies stopping research on cancer to rush their new anti-obesity therapies to market? Won’t the fast food industry be as happy as a fried clam when that happens? If you’ve been dieting, would you chuck your kale smoothies, take Lipid Diet (or whatever they’ll call it), and order in pizza with extra cheese? Methinks the temptation would be powerful.

    But there’s an aspect of this that no one is talking about. How would it feel to have your body suddenly metabolize lots of fat? Would you get an energy rush? Would you break out in a sweat or a rash? Would it cause pangs of hunger? After all, upping your metabolic rate without any exercise must signal something to your brain, even if it isn’t in control of what’s happening.

    Increasing your metabolism might have serious side effects. For one thing, you could be shortening your lifespan. It’s a biological fact that small animals have higher metabolic and heart rates than larger ones. It’s also roughly true that all mammals tend to have the same number of heartbeats in a lifetime, about 1.5 billion (though humans get more). So it’s possible that sustained higher metabolism might wear out your body in various ways faster than if it stayed more sluggish. How many days of life would immunity from overindulging be worth to you? Remember this when the ads for Lipid Diet start showing up.

    Learn more about laws of scale in the animal kingdom in Of Mice and Elephants, the source of the graphic on the next page, or listen to a report about it on NPR. If you are a bioscience geek, the study’s research paper in the New England Journal of Medicine might make sense to you.

    @image 1: Why Dieting will end up Making you Fatter than when you Started
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