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Health

The Atlantic features "headless fattie"

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 16, 2011 10:33 PM

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I was browsing the front page of The Atlantic and I noticed that it featured a "headless fattie." This is the standard illustration of obese people in the American media which omits their heads, and tends to focus on their mid-section. You can read about them here. As obesity becomes normal in the United States it is interesting to see how the media is trying to grapple with the topic, and how it illustrates obese people. I found the tensions at the heart of the recent Village Voice piece, Guys Who Like Fat Chicks, fascinating. If you've been to Manhattan you'll note a distinct paucity of fat folk, let alone 'fat chicks,' so the whole piece tends to veer between explicit identity politics consciousness raising and implicit 'freak show.' On the one hand many New Yorkers are proud of the fact that because they walk everywhere there's a norm of a relatively slim physique which would not be typical in much of the American "Heartland." And yet the fat acceptance movement pretty clearly hooks into the natural sympathy of many in cosmopolitan Lefty circles for identity politics aimed to uplift the marginalized. They leverage the same general structure of argument applied to racial and later sexual minorities, attempting to de-pathologize a body type which is currently the focus of great public health concern. Here's the paper which triggered the piece in The Atlantic, Identification of an imprinted master trans regulator at the KLF14 locus related to multiple metabolic phenotypes:

Genome-wide association studies have identified many genetic variants associated with complex traits. However, at only a minority of loci have the molecular mechanisms mediating these associations been characterized. In parallel, whereas cis regulatory patterns of gene expression have been extensively explored, the identification of trans regulatory effects in humans has attracted less attention. Here we show that the type 2 diabetes and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol–associated cis-acting expression quantitative trait locus (eQTL) of the maternally expressed transcription factor KLF14 acts as a master trans regulator of adipose gene expression. Expression levels of genes regulated by this trans-eQTL are highly correlated with concurrently measured metabolic traits, and a subset of the trans-regulated genes harbor variants directly associated with metabolic phenotypes. This trans-eQTL network provides a mechanistic understanding of the effect of the KLF14 locus on metabolic disease risk and offers a potential model for other complex traits.

Basically it looks like they found a genomic region which has a global regulatory effect on a lot of genes, and therefore the metabolic tendencies of fat tissue. Not trivial. I can see why The Atlantic headline is "British Scientists Find the Fat Gene." But taking into account the magnitude of the obesity problem in the United States I wish that the media wouldn't label this in such an easily misinterpreted manner. Skimming over the statistics for example I don't get a sense that most of the variance in the population of obesity is due to the variation at this locus. Though someone can correct me.

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