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Proc Nutr Soc. 2005 May;64(2):153-61.

Insights from the developing world: thrifty genotypes and thrifty phenotypes.

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MRC International Nutrition Group, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London, WC1E 7HT, UK.


Few researchers would dispute that the pandemic of obesity is caused by a profound mismatch between humanity's present environmental circumstances and those that have moulded evolutionary selection. This concept was first articulated when gestational diabetes was described as being the result of a 'thrifty genotype rendered detrimental by progress'. More recently, this hypothesis has been extended to the concept of a 'thrifty phenotype' to describe the metabolic adaptations adopted as a survival strategy by a malnourished fetus; changes that may also be inappropriate to deal with a later life of affluence. Both the thrifty genotype and the thrifty phenotype hypotheses would predict that populations in some areas of the developing world would be at greater risk of obesity and its co-morbidities; a proposition to be explored in the present paper. To date thrifty genes remain little more than a nebulous concept propagated by the intuitive logic that man has been selected to survive episodic famine and seasonal hungry periods. Under such conditions those individuals who could lay down extra energy stores and use them most efficiently would have a survival advantage. The search for candidate thrifty genes needs to cover every aspect of human energy balance from food-seeking behaviour to the coupling efficiency of oxidative phosphorylation. The present paper will describe examples of attempts to find thrifty genes in three selected candidate areas: maternally-transmitted mitochondrial genes; the uncoupling proteins; apoE4, whose geographical distribution has been linked to a possible thrifty role in lipoprotein and cholesterol metabolism.

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