Plenty of strategies for tackling obesity are on the table lately, but here's one that might be new to you-- study the Amish.
It makes perfect sense, when you hear Claire Fraser-Liggett talk about it. She's a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and is in the first year of work on the project together with colleague Alan Shuldiner. Yesterday, she brought up the work during her talk at the tenth anniversary symposium for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH.
The Amish are only part of the story, though. The star players are the microbial communities that reside inside them and in every human being, particularly gut microflora. C&EN has covered work on the human microbiome extensively, noting that the bugs help us take care of metabolic business that our genome doesn't encode, and might be the key to understanding not only obesity, but other ailments such as Crohn's disease.
One of the most useful tools for studying gut microbes' roles are gnotobiotic mice- mice raised in germ-free environments. Researchers such as Jeffrey Gordon at Washington University in St. Louis (who also gave a talk at the symposium) have shown that these mice are a sort of tabula rasa where researchers can implant gut microbe communities and see what happens when the mice are fed different diets or subjected to some other lifestyle change. Things started to get interesting when they realized they could implant microbes that come from human guts, not just other mice's.
Studies of these so-called humanized mice suggest that gut microflora have some influence over obesity. Give germ-free mice a dose of gut microflora from an obese person and you get mice that start looking tubby.
So where do the Amish come in? Well, getting gut microflora samples from a relatively isolated gene pool helps researchers understand how inheritance makes a difference in gut microbe makeup. It helps that the Old Order Amish community she's studying are meticulous genealogy record-keepers.
In thinking about obesity, Fraser-Liggett is intrigued by some of the social aspects of meals in Amish country-- women often have communal kitchens, making several dishes and each taking the same food back home to their families.
Despite their culture and religious beliefs, which lead the Amish to reject modern technology, "they are some of the most willing research subjects you'll find," Fraser-Liggett tells C&EN. The team had to have the studies vetted by the community elders before they were allowed to proceed, but the Amish "see the research as something for the greater good," she says.
It's shaping up to be an interesting study, but Fraser-Liggett cautions that no one study can be the final word on what causes obesity or how to treat it. "Bear in mind that obesity is a complex disease, with microbiota as one component," she says. "It's naive to think that by studying this one thing that everything will become clear."