MAY 22, 2020 12:52 PM PDT

ALK - The Skinny Gene?

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Not everyone can eat the same foods and stay slim; some people have to count calories and exercise regularly to be skinny while others can consume whatever they want without a care. Researchers have now learned more about the role genetics plays in this phenomenon. By querying a database containing health and genetic data for over 47,000 people in Estonia, they identified a gene called ALK that may make certain people resistant to weight gain. When this gene was deleted from mice or flies, they became thinner. ALK may play a role in how energy expenditure is controlled in the brain. The findings have been reported in Cell.

Image credit: Pexels

"We all know these people: it's around one percent of the population," said the senior study author Josef Penninger, the director of the Life Sciences Institute and professor of the department of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia. "They can eat whatever they want and be metabolically healthy. They eat a lot, they don't do squats all the time, but they just don't gain weight."

The Estonian Biobank contains clinical information and genetic sequence data from 47,102 people between the ages of 20 to 44. The researchers compared the gene sequences of people that were normal weight with those that are healthy but thin.

"Everybody studies obesity and the genetics of obesity," Penninger said. "We thought, 'Let's just turn it around and start a new research field.' Let's study thinness."

When flies or mice were engineered to lack the ALK gene, they remained thin regardless of diet. Mice without ALK also had less body fat and weighed less than mice with ALK even when they ate the same diet and exercised the same amount.

ALK has been studied before because it's thought to promote the growth of cancerous tumors; it's often mutated in cancer cells.

"If you think about it, it's realistic that we could shut down ALK and reduce ALK function to see if we did stay skinny," said Penninger. "ALK inhibitors are used in cancer treatments already. It's targetable. We could possibly inhibit ALK, and we actually will try to do this in the future."

The research showed that ALK is highly expressed in the brain, and it may be sending signals to fat tissue to burn more consumed fat.

Future work will be needed to confirm these findings. While data from biobanks can offer significant statistical power, the medical data that is collected is not done so in a uniform way, and comparisons are imperfect.

"You learn a lot from biobank. But, like everything, it's not the ultimate answer to life, but they're the starting points and very good points for confirmation, very important links and associations to human health," Penninger explained.

However, the multi-disciplinary nature of the study does lend support to the study: human data was researched and confirmed in animal models.

"It's great to bring together different groups, from nutrition to biobanking, to hardcore mouse and fly genetics," said Penninger. "Together, this is one story including evolutionary trees in metabolism, the evolutionary role of ALK, human evidence, and hardcore biochemistry and genetics to provide causal evidence."

Learn more about Penninger's work from the video.

Sources: Science Daily via Cell Press, Cell

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
FEB 25, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
FEB 25, 2020
Improving Gene Therapy With Plant-Based Relatives of Cholesterol
Cholesterol analogs give nanoparticles a shape that helps them get where they need to go.
MAR 17, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
MAR 17, 2020
Targeting RNA With CRISPR
Researchers screened thousands of target molecules to find the most effective targets, and have made their data openly a ...
MAR 23, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
MAR 23, 2020
Diagnosing Cancer by Looking for Microbial DNA in the Blood
Liquid biopsies aim to diagnose a disease with only a bit of biological fluid, usually blood.
APR 09, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
APR 09, 2020
As the Knee Evolved, So Did Arthritis Risk
As humans evolved, they began to walk upright, which has helped propel our species forward, literally and figuratively.
APR 29, 2020
Microbiology
APR 29, 2020
Bacteria Exposed to Antibiotics are 'Primed' to Gain More Resistance
Antibiotics are critical drugs that have saved millions of lives, but bacteria can also gain resistance to them, renderi ...
MAY 06, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
MAY 06, 2020
Advances in Genome Sequencing Technology
We've come a long way from the human genome project, which took years to complete. It now takes about 6 hours to sequenc ...
Loading Comments...