How the Food We Eat Can Reprogram Our Genes

By Monica Dus

People often think of food as calories, energy, and nutrition. However, the latest evidence suggests that food also “talks” to genomeis the genetic blueprint that guides how the body works down to the cellular level.

This food-gene communication can affect your health, physiology, and longevity. The idea that food carries important messages to an animal’s genome is at the heart of a field known as nutritionism. This is a nascent discipline, and many questions remain shrouded in mystery. However, our researchers have learned a lot about how food ingredients affect the genome.

I’m molecular biologist Who study interactions between food, genes, and the brain in an effort to better understand how food messages affect our biology. Scientists’ efforts to decipher this transmission of information may one day lead to healthier and happier lives for all of us. But until then, nutrition scientists have revealed at least one important truth: Our relationship with food is much more intimate than we ever imagined.

If the idea that food can promote biological processes by interacting with the genome sounds amazing, one need look no further than a beehive to find a perfect example and proven how this happens. Worker bees work non-stop, are sterile and live only a few weeks. The queen bee, sitting deep inside the hive, has a lifespan that lasts for years and is so fertile that it spawns an entire colony.

And yet, worker bees and queen bees are genetically identical organisms. They become two different life forms because of the food they eat. The queen bee eats royal jelly; Worker bees eat nectar and pollen. Both foods provide energy, but royal jelly has an added feature: its nutrients can unlock the genetic instructions for creating the anatomy and physiology of the queen bee.

Worker and queen bees are genetically identical organisms. They become two different life forms because of the food they eat.

Sebastian Willnow / AFP via Getty

So how is food converted into bioindicators? Remember that food is composed of macronutrients. These include carbohydrates – or sugars – proteins and fats. Food also contains micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. These compounds and their degradation products can activate genetic switches located in the genome.

Like the switches that control the light intensity in your home, genetic switches determine how much of a certain gene product is produced. For example, royal jelly contains compounds that activate the genetic controller to form the queen’s organs and maintain her fertility. In humans and mice, the byproducts of the amino acid methionine, which are abundant in meat and fish, are known to influence genetic dials important for cell growth and division. And vitamin C plays a role in keeping us healthy by protecting 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 that are activated and the cells that receive them, the messages in food can affect health, disease risk and even longevity. . But it’s important to note that to date, most of these studies have been done in animal models, like bees.

Interestingly, nutrients’ ability to alter the flow of genetic information can span generations. Studies show that in humans and animals, the diet of grandparents influences the functioning of gene switches and the risk of disease and mortality in grandchildren.

One interesting aspect of looking at food as a form of biological information is that it gives new meaning to the idea of ​​a food chain. Indeed, if our bodies are affected by what we eat – on a molecular level – then what we consume “eaten” can also affect our genome. For example, compared with the milk of grass-fed cows, the milk of grain-fed cows has different amounts and types of fatty acids and vitamins C and A. So when people drink different types of milk, their cells also receive different nutritional messages.

Compared with the milk of grass-fed cows, the milk of grain-fed cows has different levels and types of fatty acids and vitamins C and A. So when people drink different types of milk, their cells also receive different nutritional messages.

Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty

Similarly, a mother’s diet changes the amount of fatty acids as well as vitamins such as B-6, B-12, and folate in breast milk. This may alter the type of nutritional messages to the baby’s own genetic switches, although whether this affects child development is currently unknown.

And, as we may not know, we are also part of this food chain. The food we eat is driven not only by the genetic switches in our cells, but also by the genetic switches of the microorganisms that live in our intestines, skin and mucous membranes. One striking example: In rats, breakdown of short-chain fatty acids by gut bacteria changes levels of serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain that regulates mood, anxiety, and depression, among other things. other process.

Additional ingredients in foods can also alter the flow of genetic information within cells. Breads and cereals are enriched with folate to prevent birth defects caused by deficiencies in this nutrient. But some scientists theorize that high folate levels in the absence of other natural micronutrients such as vitamin B-12 may contribute to the increased incidence of colon cancer in Western countries. possibly by affecting the genetic pathways that control development.

The same can be said for chemicals found in food packaging. Bisphenol A, or BPA, a compound found in plastics, turns on genetic markers in mammals that are important for development, growth, and fertility. For example, some researchers suspect that, in both humans and animal models, BPA affects age at sex differentiation and reduced fertility by making genetic switches easier to flip.

All of these examples point to the possibility that genetic information in a food can arise not only from its molecular composition — amino acids, vitamins and the like — but also from a country’s agriculture, environment, and economy, or the lack of a surname.

Scientists are just beginning to decipher these genetic food messages and their role in health and disease. Our researchers still don’t know exactly how nutrients act on genetic switches, what the rules of their communication are, and how the diets of previous generations affect them. their descendants. Many of these studies have so far only been performed in animal models, and much remains to be studied about what these food-gene interactions mean for humans.

What is clear, however, is that unraveling the mysteries of nutrition has the potential to empower both society and present and future generations.

Monica Dus is an assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at the University of Michigan

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