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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Brown Fat: It's a Big Deal

Non-shivering thermogenesis is the process by which the body generates extra heat without shivering.  Shivering is a way for the body to use muscular contractions to generate heat, but non-shivering thermogenesis uses a completely different mechanism to accomplish the same goal: a specialized fat-burning tissue called brown fat.  Brown fat is brown rather than white because it's packed with mitochondria, the power plants of the cell.  Under cold conditions, these mitochondria are activated, using a specialized molecular mechanism called uncoupling* to generate heat.

The mechanism of brown fat activation has been worked out fairly well in rodents, which rely heavily on non-shivering thermogenesis due to their small body size.  Specialized areas of the hypothalamus in the brain sense body temperature (through sensors in the brain and body), body energy status (by measuring leptin and satiety signals), stress level, and probably other factors, and integrate this information to set brown fat activity.  The hypothalamus does this by acting through the sympathetic nervous system, which heavily innervates brown fat.  As an aside, this process works basically the same in humans, as far as we currently know.  Those who claim that rodent models are irrelevant to humans are completely full of hot air**, as the high degree of conservation of the hypothalamus over 75 million years of evolution demonstrates.

Two new studies concurrently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation last week demonstrate what I've suspected for a long time: brown fat can be 'trained' by cold exposure to be more active, and its activation by cold can reduce body fatness.

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Saturday, 27 July 2013

Zucchini: The Home Gardener's Worst Friend? With bonus garden-related rambling.

One of my main gardening goals has been to harvest more of something than I can eat, despite my limited gardening space here in the Emerald City.  I want the feeling of abundance that comes with having to preserve and give away food because I can't eat it all.

Enter zucchini.  My grandfather used to say that in New Jersey in summertime, you'd have to keep your car doors locked, otherwise the car would be full of zucchini the next time you got in!  In mid-May, I planted two starts from my local grocery store labeled "green zucchini", with no further information.  I put them in a bed that used to be a pile of composted horse manure, and that I had also cover cropped, mulched, fertilized, and loosened deeply with my broadfork.  They look pleased.


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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Genetics of Obesity, Part III

Genetics Loads the Gun, Environment Pulls the Trigger

Thanks to a WHS reader* for reminding me of the above quote by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health**.  This is a concept that helps reconcile the following two seemingly contradictory observations:
  1. Roughly 70 percent of obesity risk is genetically inherited, leaving only 30 percent of risk to environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle.
  2. Diet and lifestyle have a large impact on obesity risk.  The prevalence of obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, and the prevalence of extreme obesity has increased by almost 10-fold.  This is presumably not enough time for genetic changes to account for it.
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Monday, 15 July 2013

Return to the Source Parkour Camp

For those who are interested in natural movement training, this summer my friend Rafe Kelley will be hosting an interesting three-day event near Bellingham, WA called "Return to the Source".  Rafe is skilled in a variety of movement disciplines and is the co-founder of the Seattle parkour gym Parkour Visions.  Parkour is a very fun sport that hones our natural ability to skillfully navigate physical obstacles, but it's usually done in an urban context.

The camp will take place from August 23-25.  Here's a description from the Parkour Visions site:
"This summer, return to the source of human movement with Parkour Visions as we explore the natural environment in and around Bellingham, WA. Rafe Kelley will introduce you to the benefits of training and playing in nature. You will learn how to adapt your technique and movement to moving effectively through woods, over rocks, and in trees during this unique, 3-day experience."
Watch this video if you want to see what you're in for.

Knowing Rafe, it will be fun and productive.  You can sign up through this page.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Genetics of Obesity, Part II

Rodents Lead the Way

The study of obesity genetics dates back more than half a century.  In 1949, researchers at the Jackson Laboratories identified a remarkably fat mouse, which they determined carried a spontaneous mutation in an unidentified gene.  They named this the "obese" (ob/ob) mouse.  Over the next few decades, researchers identified several other genetically obese mice with spontaneous mutations, including diabetic (db/db) mice, "agouti" (Avy) mice, and "Zucker" (fa/fa) rats.

At the time of discovery, no one knew where the mutations resided in the genome.  All they knew is that the mutations were in single genes, and they resulted in extreme obesity.  Researchers recognized this as a huge opportunity to learn something important about the regulation of body fatness in an unbiased way.  Unbiased because these mutations could be identified with no prior knowledge about their function, therefore the investigators' pre-existing beliefs about the mechanisms of body fat regulation could have no impact on what they learned.  Many different research groups tried to pin down the underlying source of dysfunction: some thought it was elevated insulin and changes in adipose tissue metabolism, others thought it was elevated cortisol, and a variety of other hypotheses.

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