People with metabolic disorders or inherited diseases are not the only ones who have variations and mutations in their genes: Everyone does! Vulnerability to disease and how our metabolisms work depends partly upon the gene variations we have inherited. How much of a nutrient we need to prevent disease and achieve optimum health may be as unique to each person as appearance and personality.
Our particular set of genes and all of our DNA is called our genome. Each individual’s genome is unique, although we share many similarities with others. An emerging science named nutrigenomics focuses on the interaction between nutrition and our genes. Its ultimate goal is to someday tailor each person’s diet to his or her specifi c genetic needs. With personalized nutritional advice, each person could live a longer life and have fewer diseases.
Nutrients and Gene Interactions
The idea that we should eat what is best for our genes is a logical one and based on a good deal of evidence. No one can genetically tailor people’s diets today, but nutrigenomics scientists are working toward a future when they will know enough about nutrients and genes to make the idea a reality. In a 2008 interview with Whole Foods magazine, nutrigenomics expert Dr. Jim Kaput explained what he said are “the five guiding precepts” of nutrigenomics research. They are:
● Common dietary chemicals act on the human genome, either directly or indirectly, to alter gene expression (the translation or interpretation of information coded in the gene’s DNA) or structure.
● Under certain circumstances and in some individuals, diet can be a serious risk factor for a number of diseases.
● Some diet-regulated genes (and their normal, common variants) are likely to play a role in the onset, incidence, progression and/or severity of chronic diseases.
● The degree to which diet influences the balance between healthy and disease states may depend on an individual’s genetic makeup.
● Dietary intervention based on knowledge of nutritional requirement, nutritional status, and genotype (each individual’s articular set of genes; i.e., “individualized nutrition”) can be used to prevent, mitigate or cure chronic disease.
Nutrients as Gene Switches
In 2000, scientists Randy Jirtle and Robert Waterland experimented with the effect of nutrients on gene expression and disease with some specially bred laboratory mice. The mice carried a gene known as the agouti gene. The gene made them yellow instead of brown, caused them to be ravenously hungry and become obese, and made them susceptible to diseases such as diabetes and cancer. The scientists mated the agouti mice and, when the mothers were pregnant, Jirtle and Waterland fed them food supplements rich in methyl donors. Methyl donors are nutrient chemicals found in some B vitamins and common in foods such as garlic, beets, and onions. The nutrient chemicals attached to the agouti genes in the developing baby agouti mice and acted like a chemical switch for the genes. The genes and DNA coding were still there, but gene expression was turned off. The baby mice were born brown, had normal appetites, and lived long, disease-free lives.
Writing about this experiment in a 2006 Discover magazine article, journalist Ethan Watters notes, “More and more, researchers are finding that an extra bit of a vitamin, a brief exposure to a toxin, even an added dose of mothering…[can] alter the software of our genes.” In the case of the baby agouti mice, it was a nutrient that changed the phenotype (the looks, behaviors, and traits) of the mice, even though the genotype was not changed. Mice are not people, and people do not have agouti genes, but nutrigenomics experts believe that different nutrients can act as switches that turn genes on and off in humans, too. Scientists now know that not all nutrients are metabolized for energy or maintaining cell functions.
Some chemicals from nutrients, such as the methyl donors, may actually prevent gene variations from causing harm or leading to disease. Jirtle and Waterland’s experiment is a good example of how a nutrient might affect cell activity and gene expression, whether that nutrient is a macronutrient, a micronutrient, or another nutrient chemical. In Watter’s Discover article, Jirtle is quoted as saying “Now everything we do–everything we eat or smoke–can effect our gene expression and that of future generations.” And that is a fact!
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