This communication between food and genes can affect yours health, physiology and longevity. The idea that food conveys important messages to an animal’s genome lies at the heart of a field known as nutrigenomics. This is a discipline that is still in its infancy and many questions remain shrouded in mystery. Yet we researchers have already learned a lot about how food components affect the genome.
I’m a molecular biologist who research interactions between food, genes And brains in an effort to better understand how food messages affect our biology. Efforts by scientists to decipher this transmission of information may one day lead to healthier and happier lives for all of us. But until then, nutrigenomics has exposed at least one important fact: our relationship with food is much more intimate than we ever imagined.
The interaction between food and genes
If the idea that food can drive biological processes by interacting with the genome seems surprising, it is not necessary to look beyond a hive to find a proven and perfect example of how this happens. The worker bees work non-stop, are sterile and only live a few weeks. The queen bee, sitting deep in the hive, has a life that lasts for years and a fecundity so powerful that it gives birth to an entire colony.
Yet worker and queen bees are genetically identical organisms. They become two different forms of life due to the food they eat. The queen bee celebrates Royal jelly; worker bees feed on nectar and pollen. Both foods provide energy, but royal jelly has one more feature: its nutrients can unlock genetic instructions to create the anatomy and physiology of a queen bee.
So how does food translate into biological instructions? Remember that food is made up of macronutrients. These include carbohydrates – or sugars – proteins and fats. Food also contains micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. These compounds and their breakdown products can be triggered genetic switches that reside in the genome.
Like the switches that control the intensity of light in the home, genetic switches determine how much of a given genetic product is produced. Royal jelly, for example, contains compounds that activate genetic controllers to form the queen’s organs and support her reproductive capacity. In humans and mice, the by-products of the amino acid methionine, which are abundant in meat and fish, are known to affect the genetic mechanisms that are important for cell growth and division. And vitamin C plays a role in keeping us healthy protect the genome from oxidative damage; it also promotes the function of cellular pathways that can repair the genome if it is damaged.
Depending on the type of nutritional information, the genetic controls activated, and the cell that receives them, the messages in food can affect well-being, disease risk and even lifespan. But it’s important to note that most of these studies to date have been conducted in animal models, such as bees.
Interestingly, the ability of nutrients to alter the flow of genetic information can span generations. Studies show that in humans and animals, grandparents’ diet influences the activity of genetic changes and the risk of disease and mortality of grandchildren.
Cause and effect
An interesting aspect of thinking of food as a type of biological information is that it gives new meaning to the idea of the food chain. In fact, if our bodies are affected by what we ate – down to the molecular level – then what the food we consume could also affect our genome. For example, compared to milk from grass-fed cows, milk from grain-fed cows has different amounts and types of fatty acids and vitamins C and A . So when humans drink these different types of milk, their cells also receive different nutritional messages.
Likewise, a human mother’s diet alters the levels of fatty acids and vitamins such as B-6, B-12 and folate found in her breast milk. This could alter the type of nutritional messages reaching the baby’s genetic switches, although it is currently unknown whether or not this has an effect on the baby’s development.
And, perhaps without our knowledge, we too are part of this food chain. The food we eat not only interferes with genetic changes in our cells, but also with those of the microorganisms that live in our bowels, skin and mucous membranes. A striking example: in mice, the breakdown of short-chain fatty acids by intestinal bacteria alters serotonin levelsa chemical messenger in the brain that regulates mood, anxiety and depression, among other processes.
Food additives and packaging
Ingredients added in foods can also alter the flow of genetic information within cells. Bread and cereals they are enriched with folate to prevent birth defects caused by deficiencies in this nutrient. But some scientists speculate that high folate levels in the absence of other naturally occurring micronutrients how vitamin B-12 could contribute to the increased incidence of colon cancer in Western countries, possibly by affecting the genetic pathways that control growth.
This may also be true with chemicals found in food packaging. Bisphenol A, or BPA, a compound found in plastics, activates genetic quadrants in developmentally critical mammals, growth and fertility. For example, some researchers suspect that, in both human and animal modelsBPA affects the age of sexual differentiation and decreases fertility by making it more likely that genetic switches are activated.
All of these examples point to the possibility that genetic information in food may derive not only from its molecular composition – amino acids, vitamins and the like – but also from a country’s agricultural, environmental and economic policies, or a lack of them.
Scientists have only recently begun to decode these genetic food messages and their role in health and disease. We researchers still don’t know exactly how nutrients affect genetic switches, what their communication rules are, and how the diets of past generations affect their offspring. Many of these studies have so far only been conducted in animal models, and much remains to be understood about the significance of food-gene interactions for humans.
What is clear, however, is that unraveling the mysteries of nutrigenomics is likely to strengthen present and future societies and generations. DM / ML
This story was first published in The conversation
Monica Dus is an associate professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Michigan.