People typically think of food as calories, energy, and sustenance. However, the latest evidence suggests that food also “talks” to our genome, which is the genetic blueprint that directs the way the body functions down to the cellular level.
This communication between food and genes may affect your health, physiology, and longevity. The idea that food delivers important messages to an animal’s genome is the focus of a field known as nutrigenomics. This is a discipline still in its infancy, and many questions remain cloaked in mystery. Yet already, we researchers have learned a great deal about how food components affect the genome.
I am a molecular biologist who researches the interactions among food, genes, and brains in an effort to better understand how food messages affect our biology. The efforts of scientists to decipher this transmission of information could one day result in healthier and happier lives for all of us. But until then, nutrigenomics has unmasked at least one important fact: Our relationship with food is far more intimate than we ever imagined.
The interaction of food and genes
For those who find the concept of food driving biological processes via interaction with the genome perplexing, one needs to go no farther than the beehive for a confirmed and excellent illustration of how this works. Worker bees are infertile and have a short lifespan of just a few weeks. They work ceaselessly. The queen bee, who lives deep inside the hive, has a life span that may endure for years and fertility that is so powerful that she can give birth to an entire colony.
Workers and queen bees, despite their differences in appearance, are genetically identical creatures. Because of the food they consume, they develop into two distinct life forms. The queen bee feeds on royal jelly, whereas the worker bees subsist on nectar and pollen sources. Both diets are high in energy, but royal jelly has an additional benefit: its nutrients have the ability to release the genetic instructions that allow a queen bee to develop her morphology and physiology.
The question, therefore, becomes, how can food become biological information? It’s important to remember that food is made up of macronutrients. Carbohydrates (also known as sugars), proteins, and lipids are examples of such substances. Micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, are also present in food. These chemicals, as well as their breakdown products, have the potential to activate genetic switches that are located throughout the genome.
Genetic switches, similar to the switches that control the intensity of the lights in your home, regulate the amount of a certain gene product that is generated in the body. Royal jelly, for example, includes substances that stimulate the activity of genetic regulators, allowing the queen’s organs to develop and her reproductive potential to be sustained. Byproducts of the amino acid methionine, which is found in abundance in meat and fish, have been shown to have an effect on genetic pathways that are critical for cell development and division in both humans and mice. In addition, vitamin C contributes to our health by shielding the genome from oxidative damage and by promoting the operation of cellular processes that can repair the genome if it does get damaged.
Depending on the sort of nutritional information, the genetic controls that have been engaged, and the cell that receives the data, the messages in food may have an impact on wellness, illness risk, and even life duration in some individuals. The fact remains, however, that the majority of these investigations have been carried out in animal models, such as bees up to this point.
It’s interesting to note that the potential of nutrition to modify the flow of genetic information may be passed down from generation to generation. In both humans and animals, research has shown that the food of grandparents has an impact on the activation of genetic switches, as well as the illness risk and mortality of grandchildren.
Cause and effect
Thinking of food as a sort of biological information has a number of intriguing implications, one of which is that it offers a new meaning to the concept of a food chain. Moreover, given that our bodies are impacted by what we eat on a molecular level, it stands to reason that the food we eat “ate” might potentially have an impact on our genetic makeup. For example, when compared to milk from grass-fed cows, milk from grain-fed cows has various quantities and kinds of fatty acids, as well as different amounts and types of vitamins C and A. As a result, when individuals consume these various forms of milk, their cells get a variety of distinct nutritional signals.
In a similar way, the food of a human woman affects the amounts of fatty acids and vitamins such as B-6, B-12, and folate that are detected in her breast milk after she gives birth. This might affect the kind of nutritional instructions that reach the baby’s own genetic switches, however it is still uncertain whether or not this will have an impact on the child’s development.
Moreover, maybe unknown to us, we too constitute a component of this food chain. The food we consume doesn’t only mess with the genetic switches in our cells; it also messes with the genetic switches of the bacteria that live in our stomachs, skin, and mucosal membranes. Here’s an eye-catching illustration: According to the findings of this study, in mice, the breakdown of short-chain fatty acids by gut bacteria modifies the levels of serotonin, a chemical messenger in the brain that controls mood, anxiety, and depression among other functions.
Food additives and packaging
Additionally, the addition of substances to diet might affect the flow of genetic information inside cells. Bread and cereals are fortified with folate to help prevent birth abnormalities caused by a lack of this vitamin during pregnancy. Others believe that high doses of folate in the absence of other natural micronutrients such as vitamin B-12 may contribute to the increased prevalence of colon cancer in Western nations, maybe by interfering with the genetic mechanisms that regulate development.
In the case of chemicals contained in food packaging, the same might be true. Bisphenol A, often known as BPA, is a chemical molecule found in plastic that activates genes in animals that are crucial for development, growth, and reproduction. For example, some researchers believe that BPA affects the age of sexual differentiation and reduces fertility in both people and animal models by increasing the likelihood that genetic switches will be activated in the first place.
It is possible, as shown by all of these instances, that genetic information in food is derived not only from its chemical makeup – the amino acids, vitamins, and other nutrients – but also from the agricultural, environmental, and economic policies of a nation, or from their absence.
Scientists have just lately started deciphering these genetic dietary signals, as well as their significance in both health and sickness, as a result of recent advances in technology. We scientists still don’t understand exactly how nutrients work on genetic switches, what their rules of communication are, or how the diets of previous generations have influenced the offspring of their descendants. Numerous studies have been conducted exclusively in animal models, and much more research is needed to determine what the implications of interactions between diet and genes are for people.
One thing is certain, however: unlocking the secrets of nutrigenomics is likely to be beneficial to both current and future civilizations and generations alike.