Obesity is one of the most serious health problems we face in the U.S. today. The NIH estimates that roughly 68% of American adults are overweight or obese. That’s more than 200 million people carrying around extra weight in the form of excess body fat. With obesity being one of the primary risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic disease, we are facing an insidious killer, one that slowly kills us through the extra food we eat every day.
But perhaps there’s hope. According to a new Danish study, worms may be the secret to our beating obesity once and for all. A team of Danish researchers discovered a gene in worms that is able to trigger a feeling of satiety and fullness. The same gene can also make us feel sleepy after we eat, and may increase our desire for exercise. If this gene could be turned into a drug or supplement, it could be an effective way to combat obesity.
The gene is called ETS-5, and it’s responsible for controlling the signals sent to your intestines by your brain. When the worm’s brains released ETS-5, it signaled that their intestines were full, and thus it was time for the worm to stop moving (sleep). The gene basically shut down the worm’s appetite and encouraged them to rest.
But here’s the really interesting fact: the gene also responded to a poor diet. When the worms were fed a diet high in sugar and fats, the worms ended up roaming around to find more food. This is an instinct built into every animal on the planet, including humans. Malnourished animals tend to roam more to seek out higher quality food. In the case of humans, this means exercise.
Not only will this gene help to shut down our appetite, but it can also subtly work to improve our diets. When our bodies realize they’re not getting the high-quality food they need, the desire to move around will be triggered. We may end up doing more exercise as a result of the poor diet the average American consumes.
Let’s be clear: worms have about 302 neurons and 8,000 synapses, while humans have billions of neurons and 100 trillion synapses. Clearly, the human brain is far more complex than that of a worm, so what works for the worm may not work as well for humans.
But the discovery of this gene is the first step toward finding a way to engage the brain in the appetite-suppressing process. This is the first gene discovered that can regulate obesity. With further research, scientists may very well be able to find a cure for the overeating and lack of exercise that leads to obesity.
1. Roger Pocock et al., “The ETS-5 transcription factor regulates activity states in Caenorhabditis elegans by controlling satiety,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1610673114, published online 13 February 2017.