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Fat Gene Hype

The news out this week that researchers have found an "obesity gene" – a variation of which makes some people less likely to feel full and enables them to eat too much – was guaranteed to be one of those gene studies that rockets to the top of internet news, and it did.

The news of the study, which found that people with one variant of an FTO gene leaves people with high levels of ghrelin, a gut hormone involved in mediating appetite, was picked up by many mainstream media outlets.

For the non-scientist consumers, the news may seem to be either another confirmation that one's genes rule their destiny (so... "why bother trying"?), or that this study would somehow quickly be turned into a genetic treatment for losing weight.

Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist and writer, took to another consumer-oriented internet pub to counter the hype.

He writes in the Daily Beast that this type of exuberant optimism in the media about genetic findings is part of a post Human Genome Project race "to find the big one, the one key gene that magically will make the short tall, the dull sharp, or the fat thin."

While this type of obesity research "makes for a truly exciting scientific exploration," the complexity of the human genome means that anyone thinking there will be some genetic rewiring treatment in the near future to fix their FTO gene are in a for a surprise.

"The 'obesity gene' has been proclaimed, the world says, and the task now seems to be to simply change out the damn gene, like changing a light bulb maybe. Perhaps the world of home improvement will meet the genetics movement: Gene Depot, your store for genetic parts," Sepkowitz writes.

That stuff is "nonsense," he says, explaining that most people need to understand that there "is no obesity gene – rather, there is a gene that is involved in many ongoing chemical reactions throughout the body," and this one just happens to regulate a hormone that makes people feel hungry or full, but it may also perform other unknown functions.

"You can’t just swap [genes] out; you might be enticed to try, but likely would find yourself tugging at a thread that, once tugged too much, would lead to a total unraveling. Little Timmy, there will never be a Gene Depot."