Four organisations use epigenetics to beat obesity
Prof Susan Clark
25 July 2012
Scientists from four Australian Institutions have announced the initiation of a new research collaboration, which aims to understand the role of epigenetics in the development of obesity and its related diseases such as diabetes.
The four-year “EPISCOPE” research project – ‘Early nutrition, the epigenome and the prevention of disease’ – brings together The Garvan Institute of Medical Research, CSIRO, The Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute, and the University of South Australia. The project is being supported by the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (see further information below).
The approach that the team is set to pursue involves the potential modification of a set of semi-permanent, molecular signatures on the genome that ‘authorise’ the way in which information in the genome - the letters in the DNA code - is used throughout life.
These signatures, collectively known as the epigenome, are to a large extent written before birth and during early infancy, with the primary role of controlling the remarkable process of development. Their switching on and off of genes is also influenced by the developing individual’s environment. Aptly described as ‘the ghost in our genes’, our epigenome provides a genetic memory of life experiences – meaning the food we eat and the toxins we are exposed to can affect us decades later, it may also affect our children and grandchildren.
New evidence suggests that such nutritional memories affect our risk of obesity and other metabolic diseases later in life.
The team is aiming to build the first Epigenome map of a normal fat cell and then identify and map the epigenetic signatures associated with the development of obesity in children and adults and to characterise how early-life over- and under-nutrition, as well as specific nutrients, may shape the developing epigenome. From this, a key goal is to develop biomarkers and diagnostic tests to predict the risk of obesity and other metabolic syndromes, which will help to guide interventions.
Current strategies for fighting obesity largely fail because they rely chiefly on interventions that are implemented after the obesity has developed. The use of predictive biomarkers provides the opportunity for intervention long before the obese obesity has become established. Such new strategies are urgently needed if we are to curtail the emerging obesity epidemic with its current cost to the Australian community running at $8 billion per year.
While the project has a strong focus on human health, it also has an important livestock component, relying on the use of an animal model. This lamb model will also help to understand and improve livestock production traits such as metabolic efficiency – a key trait in a $16 billion per year industry.
The project team will develop a range of partnerships with other research institutions and companies to deliver outcomes.
The principal researchers on the project include:
- Dr Peter Molloy, Dr Ross Tellam, Dr Louise Ryan and Prof Manny Noakes at the CSIRO
- Prof Maria Makrides and Dr Beverly Muhlhausler from the Women’s and Children’s Research Institute in Adelaide
- Prof Caroline McMillen and Assoc. Prof. Janna Morrison from the University of South Australia in Adelaide
- Prof Susan Clark and Prof Katherine Samaras from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney
About the Science and Industry Endowment Fund
Spanning a history of over 80 years, the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (SIEF) provides grants to science and scientists for the purposes of assisting Australian industry, furthering the interests of the Australian community and contributing to the achievement of Australian national objectives. This unique and esteemed funding arrangement recently received a substantial gift facilitating the rejuvenated Fund to be a mechanism for significant support of science in Australia. Providing some of the largest grants available across the National Innovation System, as of Dec 2011 the Fund is currently supporting 12 Research Projects to the value of AU$70 million, as well as a commitment of some $11M over the next 7 years for Promotion of Science in the form of Scholarships, Fellowships and a Chair in Wireless communication at Macquarie University.