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March 5, 2014

It's in the genes

March 5, 2014

Ever stood in front of the refrigerator eating frosting from a spoon? Or maybe in front of the cupboard eating half of a bag of Doritos the second you get home from work? Have you ever eaten almost an entire sleeve of Thin Mints at your desk in the time it took to compose an email? No? Um, me neither.

Ok, maybe I fibbed. But, who hasn’t done this bad kind of eating at some point in their life? Whether we’re stressed, sad, happy or for no reason at all, I’m guessing we’ve all had an eating moment we’re not particularly proud of. Luckily, for most of us, a moment of weakness might bring some guilt, or maybe even indigestion, but it’s not a major problem in our lives.

But for some, binge eating is a dangerous and devastating problem that wreaks havoc on individuals and their families. It’s one of the core symptoms of most eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa and the binge/purge subtype of anorexia.

So why is it that some people are afflicted with an eating disorder and some are not? Are there biological and genetic factors that might play a role?

Kelly Klump, professor of psychology and expert in eating disorders, is trying to answer those questions. In her latest research, she decided to use rats to help identify different biological and genetic factors that contribute to binge eating. She explains that unlike people, animals don’t have the cultural, psychological or social risk factors, so they’re easy to study. Simply put, a rat couldn't care less what it looks like. They’re not sitting around comparing themselves to popular rats or looking in mirrors thinking about how big their butts are.

Klump used vanilla frosting to test two different strains of rats and found one to have a much higher rate of binging. Read more about her work and check out a video of binging rats in the story, “Finding a treatment for binge eating with rats and frosting.”

We all know that genetics plays a role in things like hair and eye color, whether our earlobes hang, our body types, our blood, or gender and on and on. I know, for instance, that I must be more genetically like my paternal grandmother who was shorter than 5 feet tall, than my maternal uncle who is taller than 6 feet. I know my blue eyes come from both sides.

But what about those things we can’t see? Things like eating disorders and cancer and personality and intelligence? What role does genetics play in those?

Andrea Amalfitano is an Osteopathic Heritage Foundation endowed professor of pediatrics, microbiology and molecular genetics in the College of Osteopathic Medicine. He’s an expert in genetics. He’s the guy other physicians consult to solve puzzles and put everything together. Looking at the genome for abnormalities is key to his work. Read his "FACULTY VOICE: Looking at the Big Picture," to learn more about his work.

At MSU, we know that genetic research is extremely important, so it’s equally important to train the Kelly Klumps and Andrea Amalfitanos of tomorrow.

Daniel Mitchell, a senior from Saginaw, Mich. Is studying molecular genetics and anthropology. As a freshman, he was assigned to work in an E. coli lab under the mentorship of a doctoral student and Hannah Distinguished Professor Richard Lenski. I have no doubt that someday he’ll be conducting enlightening genetic research of his own. Read his "STUDENT VIEW: Lab, Lab, Research and More Lab," to learn more about his studies.

So maybe we don’t have all the answers yet. Maybe we don’t know all the ways genetics influence who we are and how we act. But every day here on campus, there are researchers and students who are working hard to solve the mystery.

Spartans Will.


Lisa Mulcrone
Editor, MSUToday






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