Small genetic change has heavy consequences

17 Sep 2012

Professor Peter VisscherOne small change to the DNA sequence can cause more weighty changes to the human body, according to a new study released today. 

The discovery comes thanks to a worldwide consortium of researchers that includes Professor and Chair of Quantitative Genetics at The University of Queensland (UQ), Peter Visscher, from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) and Diamantina Institute (DI) at UQ. 

Professor Visscher and his team have found a single change in genetic sequence at the gene FTO had a significant effect on the variability of body mass index (BMI). 

BMI is a commonly used measure of obesity. It measures someone’s weight adjusted for his or her height. 

Professor Visscher said that the genetic change, called a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP), was the replacement of one nucleotide – the units that make up our DNA – with another. 

“They are the most abundant type of variation in the human genome,” he said. 

“SNPs occur normally throughout our DNA and most have no effect on our health, however, we’ve found one that does have a small but significant effect on variation in BMI.” 

After analysing data from almost 170,000 people, he and his team established that those with a sequence variant in the FTO gene not only weighed more on average, but the measured weights varied more than in the group without the variant. 

The variability of BMI within the group with two copies of the variant was, in fact, 7 per cent larger than the group without the variant. 

Professor Visscher said this equated to around half a kilogram difference in the standard deviation of weight. 

“So as a group, people with two copies of the weight increasing variant are a few kilograms heavier and vary more,” he said. 

Genetic differences in variability of specific traits have been seen in many plant and animal species but specific genes or mechanisms to explain the phenomenon had not been identified. 

Professor Visscher’s study is the first to look systematically at genetic effects on variation of a complex trait in humans using a very large sample size. 

“The study is important because it demonstrates that genes can be found that affect trait variability. 

“This is a first step towards understanding how genes control variation,” Professor Visscher said. 

This study is also the first to offer researchers an indirect method to measure genotype by environment interactions without having a measure of specific environmental factors. 

“If a gene interacts with specific environmental factors then this can be observed with our method,” Professor Visscher said. 

“For example, if the effect of a gene on weight is smaller in people who physically exercise than in people who do not, then this will lead to less variation among people with two copies of the weight decreasing variant. 

“In our study we did not measure specific environmental effects such as physical exercise so we can’t say for sure whether our results are due to a genotype-environment interaction." 

This is the second study Professor Visscher has published in the prestigious journal Nature this year. 

Earlier this year he identified that genetic differences also affect how intelligence changes across a lifetime. 

The work also suggested these changes in intelligence were largely influenced by environmental factors. 

Interview talent: 

Professor Peter Visscher 
Chair of Quantitative Genetics 
The University of Queensland 

Professor Visscher holds joint posts at UQ's Queensland Brain Institute & Diamantina Institute. 

Media contact: 

Mikaeli Costello 
Communications Manager 
Queensland Brain Institute 
0401 580 685

This research, entitled “FTO genotype is associated with phenotypic variability of body mass index” was scheduled for Advanced Online Publication in the journal Nature on September 16 at 3am AEST. 

Queensland Brain Institute 

The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at The University of Queensland (UQ) is a world-leading research facility focused on discovering the fundamental mechanisms that regulate brain function. 

Unlike research institutes that focus on a specific disease or condition, QBI is structured to study the brain’s fundamental molecular and physiological mechanisms. 
QBI researchers are working to unlock the mysteries the neurodegenerative disease and mental health disorders which currently account for a staggering 45 per cent of the burden of disease in Australia.

Diamantina Institute 

The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute (UQDI) is a modern research facility where clinical and basic science converge in the translational research of cancer and disorders of immune regulation. 

Headed by Professor Matthew Brown, the Institute is host to over 200 researchers, students and support staff. It lays claim to global, world-changing discoveries such as the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine. 

Based at leading Brisbane teaching hospital, the Princess Alexandra Hospital, The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute has strong clinical interactions and world-class facilities that enable researchers to be at the forefront of their fields. Diamantina Institute researchers focus their efforts on turning their scientific discoveries into better treatments for diseases including a variety of cancers, osteoporosis, arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.