Karl Dawson is the Chief Scientific Officer at Alltech. He leads Alltech’s research efforts. Dawson described the revolutionary changes in molecular science that are now providing us with the ability to understand nutrition at the genetic level. The breakthrough that cleared the way for these developments was the human genome project. Sequencing the human genome cost roughly $3 billion - equivalent to the cost of six space shuttle launches. It took about ten years to complete and when we were done we had a basic map for the human genetic code.
Genetics has always been important in agriculture, whether breeding bulls or breeding corn. We have altered the genetics of our livestock and crops over thousands of years. So, we knew the basics. But just because we knew what the map was we couldn’t predict what was going to happen for every individual. Scientists were puzzled by situations in which individuals with identical genes turned out completely different.
Studies with Agouti mice found that two mice with identical genetics could develop in very different ways. Agouti mice have a gene (the Agouti gene) that can make them ravenous, obese, yellow and prone to cancer. They were able to produce genetically identical Agouti mice that were completely different. One mouse was prone to obesity and diabetes. One mouse was healthy. The diets of these mice did not determine how they developed but the nutritional health of the mother actually controlled the outcome for the offspring. A vitamin deficiency in the mother can create problems for the offspring.
Women who were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II left those camps very undernourished and emaciated. This lack of nourishment affected their genes and caused their bodies to conserve calories, leading to obesity later in life. That effect was also handed down to their children.
Even more surprising is the discovery that caloric restriction can change the rate of aging. A monkey fed 885 calories per day ages much more quickly than a monkey fed 445 calories. The environmental effect of diet turns on or turns off genes that control the rate of aging.
How do genes respond to environmental factors? This was described as one of the 10 unsolved scientific mysteries by Scientific American. Nutrigenomics is the area of research that is solving this mystery right now. Nutrigenomics looks at how nutrients control gene expression. This is not genetic mutation but changes to the molecular switches that are present or lacking from the gene. This is epigenetics. The epigenome can determine destiny. As we learn how the epigenome works we learn how to condition it with nutrition. These conditioning or programming approaches challenge the core of our nutritional training. It is an exciting time for nutritional research.