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What is Nutrigenomics?

The Human Genome Project of the 1990s, was the largest collaborative project in the field of biology. Through this project, researchers shed light on the structure and function of the entire DNA in the human genome, which enabled jump-start a whole new world of sciences, such as Nutrigenomics. A growing interest in preventive medicine among people led to scientific research on alternative therapies, with particular emphasis on nutritional approaches to health and wellness. Utilizing knowledge from various areas of study such as Nutrition, Bioinformatics, Molecular Biology and Genomics, Nutritional genomics or Nutrigenomics is an emerging field of study that unveils the complex interrelationship between genes, nutrition, health and disease. This field of science focuses on the impact of food (nutrients), on our body as a system, by identifying its impact at the building block (genetic) level. Simply put, what we eat, directly determines the genetic messages that our body receives, and these genetic messages control all the molecules and nutrient pathways that are part of our metabolism. Nutrigenetics like Nutrigenomics is a closely related area of study on diet(nutrient) – gene interaction but focuses on the inverse relationship of how our genetic profiles determine our response to food(nutrients).

The human diet is a cocktail of nutritional and chemical molecules each capable of regulating various inter-connected molecular mechanisms in various tissues throughout the body. Thus, if we learn the language of our genes, and learn to control the messages they give our body (through personalization of nutrition), we can radically change the way we view food, not just as a means of sustenance, but as medicine -to stall the inevitable rigors of ageing and achieve optimal health.

Nutrigenomics and Nutrigenetics draws together cellular & molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics to paint a comprehensive picture of our body as an intricately connected physiological network. This integrated approach is a per-requisite to realize the ambitious goals of tailor-made nutrition.

Although Nutrition science has long been used for dietary recommendations to control risk of certain lifestyle conditions like coronary heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and Obesity to name a few, the precise mechanism through which these recommendations regulate health and disease have been slightly enigmatic. Reason being, we have always observed vastly different responses between individuals to a given diet or nutritional recommendation, and that is attributed to differences in their underlying genetic makeup. It is precisely this gap that Nutrigenomics can bridge, by giving us a better understanding of nutrient-gene interactions, to determine how much of a specific nutrient(or food factor) YOUR body dictates as its “standard”, thus enabling personalized nutritional recommendations.

For example, caffeine (consumed through various beverages like tea /coffee) — can cause an increased risk of heart disease for some individuals who are “slow” metabolizers of caffeine, whereas “fast” metabolizers actually see the opposite effect where caffeine may have protective benefits on their body.

The field of Nutrigenomics has been facilitated greatly by our recent entrance into the post-genomic era, which brought with it, the development of genetic research platforms like Proteomics, Metabolomics and Transcriptomics. Proteomics refers to the large-scale study of proteins produced and modified by an organism. Metabolomics refers to the large-scale study of small molecules known as metabolites and their interactions within the biological system. Transcriptomics refers to the study of complete set of RNA transcripts that are produced by the genome under specific circumstances. All these genetic research platforms use genetic and molecular tools such as micro-array analysis and complementary data mining algorithms, that enable us to comprehensively study, interpret and unravel the role of nutrients in the human biological system.

Though the genes we inherit cannot be altered, one can certainly change their response to the environment (dietary choices) and optimize health. Nutrigenomics research is a basis for identifying molecular biomarkers (nutrients and/or their combinations) that manipulate gene expression, for developing the concept of “personalized diets”. This is an extremely critical aspect in the early phase of diet related diseases; the phase at which, intervention with nutrition can return the person to health.

Integrating genetics into public health in India, requires an increase in general public awareness about how changes in lifestyle and dietary habits can contribute to a longer, healthier life. Past and present food scares, such as genetically modified crop & livestock demonstrate the undeniable importance of regulation, ethics and public awareness to ensure responsible use of Nutrigenomics research.

On one hand we have DNA, the epitome of biological science and the other, we have nutrition, the most potent, modifiable environmental factor in human life. As the scientific community gains further insight into interactions between genotype and lifestyle, we will be able to reshape nutrition science, and step closer to the highly desirable goal of personalized nutrition.

The ultimate aim of Nutrigenomics follows the dictate from Hippocrates ,the Father of Medicine — “Leave your drug in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food.”