Scientists have created a mouse that doesn’t get as fat on a high fat diet.

You read that right. In a new study out in Nature Neuroscience, scientists tinkered with a single gene in a mouse and made it less likely to get fat. Finally I can eat as many Double Stufs as I want without worrying about gaining weight. If scientists can turn what they’ve learned into a pill, that is.

How’d the researchers do it? By changing one part of the mouse’s brain, the hypothalamus. One of the hypothalamus’ many jobs is body weight regulation. So it was a logical place to start.

The scientists couldn’t go in with a wrecking ball and tear the hypothalamus apart. It is an important part of the brain with lots of different duties. They needed to something pretty subtle so the mice would survive but be thinner.

What they did was to keep certain cells in the hypothalamus from being able to release a neurotransmitter called GABA. This was enough to make a mouse better able to maintain a lower weight.

This study suggests that GABA’s normal job in the hypothalamus is to keep mice (and probably us) from burning too much energy. Makes sense in the wild. But is quite a pain in my cubicle.

Now, we can’t go changing human genes (at least not yet). But perhaps scientists can come up with a pill that will do the same thing. A pill that keeps AgRP neurons from releasing GABA in the hypothalamus.

This is as hard as it sounds. But now that scientists know what to do, pharmaceutical companies will be able to apply all of their firepower to solving this problem. Given the potential market, if anyone can find a medicine for restricting weight gain using this finding, they will.

Before I get too excited, though, I want to see what happens to these mice as they age. Burning calories makes free radicals which damages DNA which causes aging and can cause cancer. Perhaps burning more calories this way might generate more free radicals.

Of course even if it does, maybe we could just take the pills with cranberries or some other anti-oxidant. Or maybe Nabisco can make an Oreo laced with antioxidants…

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Better Eating Through Genetic Engineering 18 August,2008Dr. Barry Starr

Author

Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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