Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Genetic code in food may influence our physiology

'You are what you eat' is a saying that is very true, as we build up our organs with the stuff that enters our body through the digestive tract. However, recent research shows that food components may influence more than we previously thought.  A certain type of genetic code, so called micro RNAs, that we readily ingest by eating plant material, is able to influence physiological processes in our body. Scientists found that the micro RNA with number 168α is able to impair our ability to filter cholesterol out of the blood.

Micro RNA's are short molecules which resemble DNA, and take part in impairing the function of proteins, by inhibiting their production. They are widely used throughout the body in many cellular processes. They are found in humans, but also in plants. Scientists from the Nanjing University in China found micro RNA's derived from plants in our tissues, suggesting they play a bigger role than just serving as food. To test this hypothesis, they incubated mouse cells from the gut lining with the micro RNA carrying number 168α (MiR168α), which caused cellular uptake and consequently distribution of the molecule in small membrane encapsulations. The scientists showed that when mice were fed MiR168α-rich food, the levels of a protein called LDLRAP1 dropped, resulting in the mice being less able to take up cholesterol from the blood, indicating that food can interact with closely regulated physiological processes. 

However, it is unknown whether the Chinese study represents real-life situations. According to other scientists, the dose of MiR168α fed during the experiments are too high, causing a higher concentration of micro RNAs than found during normal feeding patterns. That does, however, not disprove the findings that externally ingested material influences us more than just delivering the components needed for energy and to build up new tissues.

The function of specific micro RNAs are already widely recognized. We mostly synthesize them in our own body, where they serve as regulators of body processes. It was previously unknown that we can also harness external micro RNAs. It is rather surprising that these molecules are able to withstand digestion and easily assert their function across the species barrier. This possibly opens up novel methods to administer micro RNAs as a therapeutic in certain diseases or for health reasons. 

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