The location of fat storage in the body plays a significant role in the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. People who store fat around their bellies have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease than people with bigger hips and thighs.
A new study suggests that Plexin D1, a newly-discovered gene, determines whereabouts on the body fat is stored and how fat cells are shaped.
The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could lead to the development of new strategies to prevent the onset of type 2 diabetes and reduce the risk of heart disease.
The research was conducted on zebrafish. Some were engineered to be without the Plexin D1 gene, and they stored less fat around their bellies, suggesting they were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Moreover, the zebrafish without the Plexin D1 gene were less likely to develop insulin resistance, even when fed an unhealthy diet. When the zebrafish were given a glucose tolerance test, they were highly effective at removing sugar from their blood.
Insulin resistance is a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, suggesting an added significance to the findings.
Previous research indicates that people with type 2 diabetes have higher levels of Plexin D1 than people without type 2 diabetes, suggesting that the research may have even greater significance.
“This work identifies a new molecular pathway that determines how fat is stored in the body, and as a result, affects overall metabolic health,” said John F. Rawls, senior author of the study and associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine.
“Moving forward, the components of that pathway can become potential targets to address the dangers associated with visceral fat accumulation.”
“Our results indicate that the genetic architecture of body fat distribution is shared between fish and humans, which represents about 450 million years of evolutionary divergence.
“For these pathways to have been conserved for so long suggests that they are serving an important role.”

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