Researchers Find Gene in Mice Responsible for Turning Carbs Into Fat

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Berkeley Scientists Discover Weight-Gain Gene

Christine Chen speaks with UC Berkeley researchers responsible for the discovery of a gene that, when 'turned off' in mice, will prevent the animal from converting carbohydrates into fat.

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Correction Appended

Little did the mice chowing down on carbohydrates in a campus lab know, but UC Berkeley researchers have found a way to prevent most of the food they were eating from being converted into fat.

The study, published March 20 in the journal "Cell," identified a gene central to the metabolization process. By disabling the gene in mice, scientists caused them to convert 60 percent fewer carbohydrates to fatty acids in the liver, said Roger Wong, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the department of comparative biochemistry and lead author of the study.

Typically, when humans eat foods rich in carbohydrates, their blood glucose level increases and signals the insulin hormone to attach to a transcription factor protein. This protein in turn signals glucose to be converted into fatty acids in the liver.

Examining this process, scientists found the key gene that leads to the conversion of glucose into fatty acids in an insulin pathway.

Previous studies on cancer cells showed the gene plays an active part in repairing cells and is highly expressed in cancer cells. Yet scientists found in the study that it was also involved in metabolic processes.

The study also gives more understanding to the mechanisms behind Type-1 diabetes. People with this form of diabetes are not able to produce insulin at all, which prevents them from producing fatty acids normally.

By turning off the gene, scientists were able to create a block in the fat-converting process. With the gene disabled, the next protein in the signaling pathway is never activated and the process is not completed.

This process can serve as a reminder of how humans are able to store fat in order to survive, which scientists say has new implications in our modern fast-food society.

"In olden times, it's for survival because we don't eat continuously, so we have to make fat and store," said Hei Sook Sul, UC Berkeley professor of nutritional science and toxicology, who co-authored the study. "But in modern society, food is available all the time, but this process itself did not disappear, so if we eat a lot of carbohydrate, we become fat."

The scientists emphasized that the future aims of the study include helping people eat good carbohydrates without gaining fat. But for the time being, only the mice can enjoy this benefit.

"Although our research can help people eat more carbohydrates without the worry about gaining fat, our true intention is to let people enjoy all the good carbs such as fruit, vegetable, pasta," Wong said. "The best way to control body weight is to eat less, limit carb intake, and have a balanced diet."


Correction: Thursday, April 2, 2009
An earlier version of this article misspelled Roger Wong's name.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Christine Chen covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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