After researchers from Sweden’s Uppsala University studied fat distribution in 360,000 participants, they found that genetic factors greatly influence how our bodies store fat. The team, whose findings are published January 21st in Nature Communications, also found that this genetic influence is more predominant in women than in men.
“We know that women and men tend to store fat differently – women have the ability to more easily store fat on the hips and legs, while men tend to accumulate fat around the abdomen to a higher extent,” said lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala’s department of Immunology, Genetics and Pathology, Mathias Rask-Andersen, Ph.D. “This has been attributed to the effects of sex hormones such as estrogen. But the molecular mechanisms that control this phenomenon are fairly unknown.”
Using participant blood samples, the researchers were able to genotype and measure fat distribution using impedance measurements, those being measurements of electrical resistance to an electrical current that is fed through the body. They then tested millions of genetic variants for connections to fat distribution in the arms, legs, and bottom. The team found hundreds of genes that affect bodily fat distribution and a high degree of heterogeneity between males and females.
“We were struck by the large number of genetic effects that were stronger, or only present, in females. Upon closer examination, several of the associated genes were found to encode proteins that actively shape the extracellular matrix, which makes up the supporting structure around cells,” said Åsa Johansson, the group leader docent.
The study’s findings may help future researchers develop new methods of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Males with abdominal fat are usually at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, whereas women who store fat in their legs and hip and leg region are at lesser risk.
“The biological systems we highlight in our study have the potential to be used as points-of-intervention for new drugs that are aimed at improving the distribution of body fat and thereby reducing the risk of disease,” Mathias Rask-Andersen concluded.