Are your genes to blame when your jeans don’t fit?

26 Oct 2015

How much does your genetic make-up have to do with your weight? A University of Cambridge scientist will discuss the issue at a public lecture at The University of Queensland on 2 November.

Dr Giles Yeo’s lecture, ‘Are your genes to blame when your jeans don’t fit?’, is sponsored by UQ’s School of Biomedical Sciences and is part of the 2015 International Postgraduate Symposium in Biomedical Sciences.

The lecture will examine the powerful genetic components and complex human biology which govern eating behaviour.

“We become fat because we eat too much, but the question to ask is why some people eat more than others,” Dr Yeo said. 

“Many genes have been identified which increase our risk for becoming obese and most of these function in the brain to influence food intake.

“Obese people find it hard to lose weight not because they are bad and lazy, but because they are fighting their biology.”

Dr Yeo’s research focuses on the molecular mechanisms in the brain which control food intake and body-weight.

He was the first scientist to identify that severe mutations in brain genes MC4R and TRKB cause severe human obesity.

“Severe mutations in these genes disrupt a circuit in the brain and make you feel like you are literally starving all the time,” Dr Yeo said. 

“But such severe mutations are extremely rare, it would be like having a severe mutation in certain genes that cause muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis.

“For most of us with so-called ‘common obesity’, linked to subtle changes in our genes, diet and exercise can certainly mitigate against this ‘genetic burden’.

“But it will always be more difficult for someone with a higher genetic risk as they are constantly fighting their biological make-up.”

Dr Yeo said although certain genetic variations slightly increased the risk of becoming obese, there was currently no predictive value.

“One analogy is to imagine your genes as a good hand or a bad hand in a game poker. You can win with a bad hand and you can lose with a good hand, depending on how you play,” he said. 

“You might have inherited a bad hand but you can fight the genetic risk of obesity with lifestyle, it’s just more difficult for some.

“In the future however, probably in about 15 years, our genetic profile will be used predictively and will enable us to receive personalised treatment for potential obesity, or any other disease for that matter.”

Dr Yeo’s lecture is a free public event, held from 4pm- 5pm on Monday 2 November in the Steele Building (Building 03) at UQ’s St Lucia campus.

RSVP is essential by Friday 30 October. Please visit the public lecture website for full details.

Dr Giles Yeo will be available for media interviews on Monday 2 November and Tuesday 3 November. To arrange an interview, please contact Lynda Flower.

Media: Lynda Flower, School of Biomedical Sciences, +61 7 3365 1536.