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One thing I learned today… the relationship between genes and nutrition

April 12, 2011

Reminder- I’m away this week, taking a crash course in science for journalists.  I’m tracking the highlights of what we cover each day to give you a sense of what I’m doing over here.

We covered a lot of material today- bio-fuels, the scientific method, California’s plan for reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, how to write science stories for the radio…

But the fact that stood out the most came during a session with Jasper Rine with UC Berkeley’s quantitative biology department.

Rine is an expert on genetics, so he started with some background on how scientists sequence DNA.  He followed with some info on the different companies that do this kind of work, as well as the likelihood of having some type of genetic mutation. This is where I started to pay more attention-

In turns out the rate of mutations in genes is pretty high- for every generation of people, at least someone has experienced every possible mutation in every spot on the human genome.  So why don’t we have all of these people running around with genetic-related diseases?  It turns out, most of those mutations make no difference at all.

So, as I understand it, DNA is sort of an instruction manual telling cells how to build strings of proteins.   The letters expressing these instructions are “A” “T” “C” and “G”.  Those letters in combination create different amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.  But “GGA” “GGG” and “GGC” in combination all create the same amino acid-Glycine.  So, DNA has a built in flexibility- even if there’s a bit of mutation in a strand of DNA, it can still create the strand of proteins it was intended to build.

According to Rine, of the possible  3,000,000 possible human mutations that scientists know about, only about 2,000 affect the actual structure of proteins120 harm us and 5 are potentially lethal.  And we don’t always need advanced science to do something about those hurtful mutations.

According to Rine, 640 amino acid combinations need a vitamin or mineral to function. So, when a mutation happens with the DNA that creates those 640 amino acid combinations, it often alters the body’s ability to create or process a certain vitamin/mineral on its own.

But we can fix that, or at least help things, by putting more of those vitamins and minerals in our bodies. For example, consider a gene mutation that can contribute to birth defects- it makes it more difficult for the body to process folic acid, an essential ingredient in embryo development.  What can we do about that?  Eat more leafy greens, high in folic acid!

Rine says eventually ( within a few years) experts should be able to look at our DNA and tell us the kinds of foods our body in particular might need more need more of because of one genetic mutation or another.  Eating these foods actually help repair potential deficiencies in our genetic code.  Of course, we already know what the advice in general would be- eat more fruits and vegetables.  It’s something that we’ve been hearing from our parents and nutritionists for our entire life.

But Rine argues that the mantra might take on a bit more urgency if you knew that you in particular had a genetic mutation that made an essential function in your body under perform, nor not perform at all, because of a problem with a particular vitamin or mineral. I’d happily scarf down a plate of broccoli a day if it meant avoiding some experimental genetic experiment or  a costly prescription.

So, eat your fruits and vegetables!

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