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    Addressing the Global Obesity Epidemic through Genomics

    The prevalence of obesity worldwide has nearly tripled since 1975. Various measures have been implemented by governments globally to combat this issue, focusing on factors such as affordable fast food, oversized food portions, and sedentary lifestyles. However, recent studies conducted by BGI Group and the Chinese Academy of Sciences propose that advancements in genomics could hold the key to addressing this escalating problem.

    In the year 1975, occurrences of obesity in children were rare, especially in less-developed regions, with only 0.3% of individuals in developing countries aged 5 to 19 falling under the obese category. Fast forward to the present day, the number has significantly risen, with over 340 million children and teenagers aged 5-19 now being classified as overweight or obese.

    The adult population is equally impacted by this crisis. Projections by scientists indicate that by the year 2030, almost half of all adults will be obese, and one in four will be severely obese.

    Identifying the Culprit

    The growing issue of expanding waistlines is commonly attributed to the prevalent “obesogenic environment”, characterized by the ready availability of cheap fast food, large food portions, and sedentary habits.

    Kimberley Neve, a Research Assistant at the Centre for Food Policy, highlights, “Even individuals who make strong efforts to shed weight face obstacles due to the widespread presence of unhealthy food options – they are easily accessible, affordable, convenient, and appealing.”

    To address this concern directly, governments worldwide have introduced an array of legislations aimed at curbing obesity. For instance, earlier this year, the UK government mandated that prominent restaurants, pubs, and bakeries list the calorie content of each dish on menus and food delivery platforms. This followed the implementation of a tax on sugary drinks in 2018 and a £10 million advertising campaign promoting the advantages of staying active.

    While regulatory initiatives targeting the “obesogenic environment” may contribute to addressing the obesity crisis, recent research published in Nature by BGI Group and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, along with collaborative efforts from research teams in China, Singapore, Germany, Italy, the UK, Sweden, and Spain, indicates that focusing solely on reducing processed food intake and enhancing physical activity tells only part of the story; advancements in genomics hold promising possibilities in the fight against obesity.

    Since 2006, genome-wide association studies have identified more than 50 genes linked to obesity. This implies that individuals with specific genetic variations may face challenges in managing their weight, regardless of their level of physical exercise or dietary restrictions. A study from 2007 revealed that individuals with genetic predispositions to obesity weigh an average of 3kg more than those at the lowest risk and possess 15% more body fat.

    Expanding on this research, a scientific team employed cutting-edge single-cell sequencing technology to investigate the genetic composition of macaque monkeys, which share 95% of their DNA with humans. Through these endeavors, the team, spearheaded by BGI-Research, produced the most comprehensive non-human cell map noted to date, unveiling various gene expressions that influence cell characteristics. A critical outcome of this research is the identification of cells with anomalies that impede effective calorie metabolism – a key contributor to obesity.

    Significance of the Study

    Ushering in a new era of personalized medicine, the research, featured in Nature, sets the stage for developing obesity treatments that specifically target problematic cells to enhance heat metabolism.

    The implications of this study extend to a broad spectrum of healthcare issues. From Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases to cancer and Covid-19, the application of single-cell technology by BGI Group and the Chinese Academy of Sciences offers unparalleled insights into the intricate workings of the body, presenting valuable leads for disease management.

    Single-cell technology has revolutionized our understanding of non-human cells. Just as advancements in cartography from ancient parchment maps to modern Google Maps have enriched our geographical comprehension, the cell maps generated through single-cell technology pave the way for enhanced understanding and treatment of diseases.

    It is apparent that over the past five decades, the global obesity epidemic has experienced a significant surge, affecting industrialized and developing nations alike. While lifestyle modifications centered on diet and exercise have been the primary focus for combating obesity, the study by BGI Group suggests that genomics is poised to play a pivotal role in addressing this mounting crisis.


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