Fatty Acids Tell a Genetic Story about Health Risks, Says Study

By Sandra Clark

18 January 2019

Woman with measuring tape held around waist with bowl of veggies in her hand

How your body metabolizes fat may reveal your risk for certain diseases, says a new study by researchers in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Science.

The link between genes, nutrition and health is at the heart a burgeoning field known as nutrigenomics.  Just as precision medicine is changing the way doctors treat individuals based on their genetic make up, precision nutrition may soon tell each of us how we can optimize our own unique diet.

“We’re heading into an era of personalized nutrition,” says Shannon Klingel, a PhD student in the lab of Prof. David Mutch and lead author of the study.   “Knowledge about genes and how they can affect an individual’s response to certain foods like fat or salt - and hence their risk for certain cardiometabolic diseases - is hugely important.”

But not everyone is comfortable with the idea of undergoing a full genetic analysis to discover their own distinct gene-nutrition links.  Klingel and Mutch wanted to determine if other, non-genetic biomarkers could remove this barrier, while still providing important nutrigenomic information.

Mutch and Klingel used data from the Diet, Obesity and Genes (DiOGenes) Study – a large five year study in Europe that investigated how obesity can be prevented and treated in adults using diet. They were particularly interested in whether or not the composition of fatty acids in participants’ adipose (fat) tissue would reveal, indirectly, key information about genes related to obesity and obesity-related complications.

“The DiOGenes study gave us the perfect opportunity to explore the relationship between a person’s genes and their adipose tissue fatty acid composition - something that is difficult to do because of the semi-invasive nature of collecting adipose tissue samples from people,” explains Klingel.   

Working with their international colleagues, the team found that differences in the composition of fatty acids in abdominal fat were indeed linked to variations in a group of genes (known as FADS1/2) which control fatty acid metabolism in the body.

They also found that levels of two fatty acids in particular, dihomo-γ-linolenic acid and arachidonic acid, were associated with increased expression of genes involved in inflammation – a hallmark of metabolic diseases like obesity.

Not only do the results add to the growing power of nutrigenomic knowledge, they show that the FADS1/2 genes also influence fatty acid composition in adipose tissue. This is particularly important given the relationship between fatty acids and inflammation.

PhD student and lead author Shannon Klingel (photo by AGPHOTO)

PhD student and lead author Shannon
Klingel (photo by AGPHOTO)

“We believe we are heading towards a point where we can use our knowledge of genes and fatty acids to predict the risk of cardiometabolic disease for an individual, rather than the general population as a whole,” says Klingel.

Mutch and his team are continuing to look at variations in different genes to see how they too might affect fatty acid metabolism and cardiometabolic risk. Because it is well known that genes can vary with ethnicity, they hope to see the same type of analyses performed across many different populations. 

“The long term goal is really to pave the way for healthcare practitioners to be able to better assess an individual’s risk of cardiometabolic disease,” says Klingel. “The prospect of offering personalized strategies to help lower that risk is really what keeps our lab motivated.”


This study was carried out with data provided by the DiOGenes Study. Funding was provided by the Ontario Ministry of Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation and the Commission of the European Communities.


Read the full article in the International Journal of Obesity.

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