a free lunch?

July 28, 2009

These two mice were fed the same high fat diet. The top mouses liver cells were engineered to metabolize fat directly into carbon dioxide.

These two mice were fed the same high fat diet. The top mouse's liver cells were engineered to metabolize fat directly into carbon dioxide. (credit: Jason Dean, University of California, Los Angeles)

Don’t you wish your body could just get rid of that extra fat by itself, without the pesky exercise or dieting? It may not be as far off as you think.

In the June edition of Cell Metabolism, James Liao’s group reports that it succeeded in reducing diet-induced obesity in mice fed a high fat diet (Technology Review also has a nice article on it). They did this by splicing in something called the glyoxylate shunt into the mice DNA from E. coli.

When our body wants to use fat, it breaks it down and often converts it to carbohydrates (mostly glucose), whose excess can have all sorts of pernicious effects (i.e. diabetes). With this new glyoxylate shunt pathway, the mouse liver cells metabolize the fat directly into CO2, which is absorbed in the blood stream and simply exhaled.

While employing this technique in humans is still far, far away, it’s a nice reminder of the fruits of genetic engineering and synthetic biology will eventually bear.

What’s interesting, though, is that short of geneticly engineering humans (which I doubt we’re close to doing any time soon, for both technological and ethical reasons), we’re a good ways off from being able to change our own DNA and thus use what we’ve discovered in other animal models. Almost all current cell-level treatment involves getting various molecules into cells rather than actually changing their DNA (although see gene therapy).

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