Diet and Genes. Working Together to Improve Life Span.

All of the women I know and I’m sure a lot of men (although they might not like to admit to it) have dieted at some point or another, and there are a million different diets out there that claim they can change your life and ‘make you happier and healthier’ while lining someone’s pockets with cash. However, new research looking into the genome of a worm used often as a genetic model (Caenorhabditis elegans) has shown that differences in people’s genes could be the reason certain diets work for some people and not for others. They have also shown that depending on mutations in the worm’s genes their diet could even affect their life span.


C. elegans have in their DNA a gene called alh-6 which helps regulate metabolism; there is also a version of this gene in mammals such as you and me. In this study scientists at the Keck School of Medicine of USC looked into the effect of different diets on these worms with slight differences in the alh-6 gene and monitored how that changed their ageing.

Aging is one of the most complex physiological processes with a huge number of genetic and environmental factors, and it has been known for a while that diet can have a big impact on an animal’s rate of aging. Mutations in the C.elegans alh-6 metabolism gene have been shown to accelerate aging in a diet dependent manner. Two groups of worms with the same gene mutation were given two different diets and one group lived longer and appeared healthier while the other died sooner. This suggests that the gene normally acts to protect cells from diet-inducing damage, and if the gene is lost or mutated then certain diets can cause harm that would normally be prevented.

So what does this actually mean?

The discovery that a small change in a single gene can have drastic effects on how an organism can process its diet and prevent damage that leads to premature aging is a difficult one to comprehend. This little worm has almost  20,000 protein encoding genes which is almost as many as humans have, currently estimated at around 25,000. If the human version (homologue) of alh-6 is shown to have as much of an effect on our cells then I can see it quickly becoming an area of research in both the nutrition and ageing fields.

Small changes between an individual’s genes and the rest of the population is what makes us unique, and with the new age of super quick and relatively cheap genome sequencing it could be possible to see if someone has mutations in these metabolism genes, and perhaps then decide which diets would and would not work for them depending on how they can process certain foods.

So if the Atkins, Paleo or Dukan have all turned out to be a flop and left you feeling dizzy on the yoyo diets, fear not because soon there might be a genetically personalized diet out there for you that will not only make you feel healthier but also protect your cells from damage. Pretty nifty, ay?

Julia Rose

photo credit: <a href=””>Merrill College of Journalism Press Releases</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

Shanshan Pang, Sean P. Curran (2014). Adaptive Capacity to Bacterial Diet Modulates Aging in C. elegans. Cell Metabolism DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2013.12.005


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