Epigenetics of Obesity and Diabetes


The unprecedented rise in the number of people who are obese and/or diabetic poses increasing demands on healthcare worldwide. Current research is turning towards factors other than genotype that may predispose people to such diseases. The sum total of lifetime environmental exposures, the exposome, combines with deoxyribonucleic acid sequences to influence phenotypic expression. The epigenome, or the chemical processes that alter gene expression without changing the underlying genetic sequence, is at the interface of the genome and exposome. Early epigenetic influences may cause a predisposition for adult diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Limited human studies, complemented by animal studies, have demonstrated that in utero ‘programming’ may alter adult metabolic profiles. New technologies, such as layered omics, may provide tools that will allow predictions for disease susceptibility, and may be crucial for the early prevention and treatment of obesity and diabetes.

Key Concepts:

  • The exposome complements the genome in its influence of phenotypic expression.

  • The epigenome is at the interface of the genome and the exposome.

  • The hypothesis of the fetal origins of adult disease may describe early epigenetic influences for adult diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

  • Animal studies have demonstrated that in utero ‘programming’ may alter adult metabolic profiles.

  • Layered omic technologies may be the tool that will allow predictions for disease susceptibility, which will be crucial to early prevention/treatment for disease epidemics such as diabetes and obesity.

Keywords: diabetes; epigenetics; exposome; obesity; omic technologies; in utero programming

Figure 1.

Epigenomic marks. The epigenome can mark DNA in two ways, both of which play a role in turning genes off or on. The first occurs when certain chemical tags called methyl groups attach to the backbone of a DNA molecule. The second occurs when a variety of chemical tags attach to the tails of histones, which are spool‐like proteins that package DNA neatly into chromosomes. This action affects how tightly DNA is wound around the histones. Reproduced with permission from NHGRI (www.genome.gov) © NHGRI.



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Sheen, Jean‐Ju, Heo, Hye J, and Einstein, Francine H(May 2013) Epigenetics of Obesity and Diabetes. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024272]