Can Some Genes Predispose Obesity?

Obesity is a major risk factor for serious comorbidities including cardiovascular disease (CVD), type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, and certain cancers. In the past decade, obesity-derived comorbidities caused more than 4 million deaths per year and cost an average of 4 years of life lost worldwide.

The increased prevalence of obesity and extreme obesity could lead to a global average reduction in life expectancy in the next decade. Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve the toolset to reduce the burden of obesity. 

What is Obesity? 

Obesity is a complex disease involving an excessive amount of body fat. Obesity isn’t just a cosmetic concern. It’s a medical problem that increases the risk of other diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.

There are many reasons why some people have difficulty losing weight. Usually, obesity results from inherited, physiological and environmental factors, combined with diet, physical activity and exercise choices.

Body mass index (BMI) is often used to diagnose obesity. For most people, BMI provides a reasonable estimate of body fat. However, BMI doesn’t directly measure body fat, so some people, such as muscular athletes, may have a BMI in the obesity category even though they don’t have excess body fat.

New Research Study

A new study from the University of Virginia has identified 14 genes that can cause and three that can prevent weight gain. The findings pave the way for treatment to combat a health problem that affects more than 40% of American adults. 

The research team developed an automated pipeline to simultaneously test hundreds of genes for a causal role in obesity.  Their first round of experiments uncovered more than a dozen genes that cause and three genes that prevent obesity. 

The new research helps shed light on the complex intersections of obesity, diet and our DNA. Obesity has become an epidemic, driven in large part by high-calorie diets laden with sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Increasingly sedentary lifestyles play a big part as well. But our genes play an important role too, regulating fat storage and affecting how well our bodies burn food as fuel.

They used C. elegans worms in their study to determine which genes played causal roles by directly promoting or helping prevent weight gain. These worms share more than 70% of our genes and like people they become obese if they are fed excessive amounts of sugar. 

They were able to identify 14 genes that cause obesity and three that help prevent it. they found that blocking the action of the three genes that prevented the worms from becoming obese also led to them living longer and having better neuro-locomotory function. Those are exactly the type of benefits drug developers would hope to obtain from anti-obesity medicines.


University of Virginia Health System. “Scientists discover 14 genes that cause obesity: Findings could decouple overeating from harmful health effects.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 October 2021. <>

Wenfan Ke, Jordan N. Reed, Chenyu Yang, Noel Higgason, Leila Rayyan, Carolina Wählby, Anne E. Carpenter, Mete Civelek, Eyleen J. O’Rourke. Genes in human obesity loci are causal obesity genes in C. elegans. PLOS Genetics, 2021; 17 (9): e1009736 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009736

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