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Member Research and Reports

UNC: Researcher Helps Discover Variants in DNA that Influence How the Body Distributes Fat

Dr. Kari North, epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, is joint lead author of a new study, published February 18 in Nature Genetics. Co-authors from the Gillings School include Dr. Kristin Young, assistant professor; Dr. Misa Graff, assistant professor; and Dr. Heather Highland, postdoctoral fellow, all in the UNC Gillings School’s epidemiology department.

Identifying genetic variants associated with obesity is central to developing targeted interventions that can reduce the risks of chronic illnesses such as hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Genome-wide association studies previously identified 49 loci, or positions along a chromosome where the related genetic variants are located, that predispose individuals to a higher waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), which is a way to assess body-fat distribution. Lower values of WHR are associated with lower incidence of these diseases.

In the study, with a specific focus on coding variation, the team found 24 coding loci – 15 common and nine rare – along the chromosomes of individuals that predispose to higher WHR. Further analysis revealed pathways and gene sets that influenced not only metabolism but also the regulation of body fat tissue, bone growth and adiponectin, a hormone that controls glucose levels and breaks down fat.

Dr. North said the study is one of the largest ever to explore the influence of low frequency and rare coding variation in body-fat distribution. The information the team collected on the impacts of the rarer variants they discovered is particularly valuable, she said.

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