NC State researcher helps link gene mutation to obesity

dblustein@newsobserver.comJuly 20, 2013 

— An international team of researchers, including one at N.C. State University, has found a genetic condition that can lead to obesity in mice and that has also been observed in humans.

The work, published in the journal Science last week, adds to growing knowledge about the genetic basis for obesity that could lead to future treatments.

“We’ve got, now, a path to go down to find some potential treatments for this genetic condition,” said Peter Ferket, a poultry science professor at NCSU, a co-author on the study.

Mice with the mutation didn’t eat more, at least not at first, but they gained more weight, adding fat to their abdomens.

The Harvard University-led research team called in Ferket to help determine why the mice were getting fat.

Just as people seem to put on weight differently, the mice showed differences in metabolism, Ferket said.

At first it was unclear if the mice were harvesting more energy from their food or if they were using the energy differently.

And so Ferket was asked to figure out how many calories the mice were eating – and how many were left over in their feces.

Part of Ferket’s everyday work involves analyzing ingredients and additives used in poultry feed to help maximize bird health, growth efficiency and meat quality. But his typical research techniques weren’t quite suited for the mouse research.

The challenge was that the Harvard researchers had only a few mice and collected only a little bit of feces, Ferket said.

So he developed a new technique: He mixed the feces with wheat flour, a substance of known calorie content, to bulk up the samples.

These larger sample pellets were ignited within a metal cylinder, called a bomb calorimeter, which was submerged in a tank of water. By watching the resulting change in the temperature of the water, Ferket could tell how much energy, or calories, was stored in the pellets and released through the burning process.

His technique showed that mice with or without the identified gene mutation were absorbing the same amount of calories. Other researchers on the team worked to characterize the genetic basis for why the mutation led to obesity.

Seven universities spanning the United States, Europe, and Japan participated in the research.

“I’m impressed by this collaborative spirit to solve real-world problems and that N.C. State is recognized as one of the go-to places to solve some of these problems,” Ferket said.

This week, Ferket’s scientific collaboration efforts will take him to San Diego for an academic meeting where he’ll learn about the latest advances in poultry science. One of his presentations will share a new technique he has developed to feed chicks before hatching, while they are still in the egg.

Blustein: 919-829-4627

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