High-fat diet? You are what you eat, right down to your DNA

September 3, 2014 | by Darrin Joy

Could what you eat affect the health of your chromosomes? The short answer is, “Yes.”


Rama Natarajan and Dustin Schones A high-fat diet may lead to detrimental changes to your chromosomes say Rama Natarajan, left, and Dustin Schones.


Researchers led by Dustin Schones, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Cancer Biology, and Rama Natarajan, Ph.D., director of the Division of Molecular Diabetes Research and the National Business Products Industry Professor in Diabetes Research, have found that a high-fat diet can lead to chemical changes in chromatin, the bundles of DNA and protein that form chromosomes. Further, the team found that those changes to chromatin structure can, in fact, alter the way genes are expressed in cells.

Researchers have long known that diet is a key factor leading to metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. These disorders result in abnormal processing of fats, proteins, sugars and other important molecules in the body.

The current study focused on the livers of mice. The liver is often involved in metabolic diseases. The scientists found that feeding the mice a high-fat diet changed chromatin in liver cells. Those changes altered the way key genes functioned, making some genes more active and reducing the activity of others. Because those genes are linked to certain metabolic diseases, the scientists believe the changes could lead directly to obesity, fatty liver disease, diabetes and other disorders.

“Environmental factors clearly play a role in the development and progression of metabolic diseases,” said Schones. “Our study shows that chromatin remodeling is one way that happens.” In other words, the research draws a direct line between what we eat and how our DNA physically changes shape to cause disease.

The researchers aim to continue their studies to better understand how environmental factors such as diet affect chromatin and to look for possible drug targets.

Other City of Hope researchers on the study include Amy Leung, Ph.D., Juan Du, Candi Trac, Ryan Setten, Yin Chen and Kevin Brown. The study was published Aug. 22 in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institutes of Health under grant numbers K22HL101950, T32DK007571-24, R01HL106089, R01HL087864, RO1DK065073, HL28482, DK094311 and P30CA33572. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


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