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'Fat' Genes May Determine Where Weight Is Stored

Wendy Rigby
Texas Public Radio
Michael Olivier, Ph.D., and Jack Kent, Ph.D., of Texas Biomedical Research Institute are shown here in the AT&T Genomics Computing Center.

There is a growing understanding among medical researchers that it’s not just fat putting people at risk for health problems. It’s where the body stores that fat. Some San Antonio scientists have pinpointed seven genes that influence the storage of fat. What they’re learning may lead to new therapies for targeted weight loss.


The risks associated with carrying around extra weight are well-known. People who are overweight or obese are more likely to suffer from health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Our bodies naturally store fat under the skin and in our bellies, but when there’s too much fat and it needs somewhere to go, fat can surround vital organs or creep into tissue where it doesn’t belong. The medical term is ectopic fat.

Credit Gillian Lieberman, MD
Ectopic fat is fat cells that are stored around organs and in muscles.


"It gets into the liver. It gets around the heart. It gets into muscles," explained Michael Olivier, Ph.D.,chair of the Department of Genetics at Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

"The fat that accumulates in those unusual locations is actually the fat that has the negative impact on our health," Olivier pointed out.

Olivier is part of a group of researchers who wanted to know if genetics influence where your body stores fat. They took information from 18-thousand people of various ethnicities: European, Hispanic, African, Asian. Looking at scans of their bodies and matching the information up with their genes, scientists identified seven new genes that factor into fat storage.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
The AT&T Genomics Computing Center at Texas Biomedical Research Institute includes 6000 processors that work parallel.


The technology that makes this kind of genetic research possible is the incredible computing capacity at Texas Biomed. Here, more than 6000 processors work in parallel, with a master computer coordinating their work. It’s as if instead of reading 6000 books one at a time, you could read and understand them simultaneously. Genetic analyses that would take a single machine months to complete can be finished in hours.

"It’s the AT&T Genomics Computing Center," said Jack Kent, Ph.D.,a statistical geneticist. He thinks the published work could open doors to new therapies.

"Obviously the fact that these are new genes that have not been characterized before, that’s surprising in the sense that it’s novel and leads to new possibilities," Kent added.

The National Institutes of Health is interested in fighting obesity, which is becoming a global health problem. Audrey Chu is a genetic epidemiologist who worked at NIH on this project with Texas Biomed. She said narrowing down new targets for intervention could have a wide-ranging impact.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Michael Olivier, Ph.D., is the chair of Genetics at Texas Biomedical Research Institute.


"The current treatments that we have are not as good as I think we would like them to be," Chu asserted. "And if there is any way to use the genetic information that we have to benefit obesity in general, as well as body fat distribution, that would be wonderful for public health."

You can’t blame your fat storage issues all on genetics, though. This study published in the journal Nature Genetics showed genes account for about a third to a half of the difference in fat storage among people. The rest depends on how you live and what you eat.


Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.