NEW YORK – Researchers with Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, Fios Genomics in the UK, and Washington University in St. Louis have used genetic and lifestyle insights from the UK Biobank project to focus in on genetic variants with significant or suggestive ties to a strict vegetarian diet.
The findings appeared in the journal PLOS One on Wednesday.
"Our data show that adherence to a strict vegetarian diet is significantly influenced by genetics," co-first and corresponding author Nabeel Yaseen, a pathology researcher at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, said in an email.
"We hope that future studies will shed more light on the physiology of vegetarianism that would enable us to provide personalized dietary recommendations and perhaps lead to the development of better meat substitutes," he added.
By digging into available genetic data for almost 335,000 participants in the UK Biobank study, including individuals profiled with the UK BiLEVE Axiom Array or the UK Biobank Axiom Array, the researchers searched for genetic variants that distinguished 5,324 individuals who strictly practiced vegetarianism from 329,455 non-vegetarian UK Biobank participants.
In the process, the team tracked down a chromosome 18 variant with genome-wide significant ties to strict vegetarianism, along with 201 variants showing suggestive associations with the vegetarian dietary choice.
The lack of additional associations reaching statistical significance may reflect limited polygenicity in the dietary trait or point to the need for larger studies, the authors suggested, noting that data so far "support the hypothesis that our results may be due to a lack of polygenicity."
Along with genes in and around the significantly associated chromosome 18 variant rs72884519 — including TMEM241, RIOK3, NPC1, and RMC1 — the investigators brought in further functional mapping and annotation clues to flag almost three dozen more genes with suspected ties to vegetarianism.
Three of the genes in the latter set showed significant associations with vegetarianism in a gene-based analysis, the team reported. Intriguingly, the set of genes with significant or suggestive ties to a strict vegetarian diet encompassed genes previously implicated in processes such as brain function or lipid metabolism, prompting the authors to suggest that such processes may contribute to individuals' propensity for a vegetarian diet and an ability to maintain it.
"At this time, we do not know which of the genes we identified play a critical role in vegetarianism and what mechanisms are involved," Yaseen said. "Based on the functions of some of the genes we identified, we can speculate that those mechanisms may involve lipid metabolism and brain function, but further research is needed to test this hypothesis."