Review | Published:

Epigenetics and human obesity

International Journal of Obesity volume 39, pages 8597 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Background:

Recent technological advances in epigenome profiling have led to an increasing number of studies investigating the role of the epigenome in obesity. There is also evidence that environmental exposures during early life can induce persistent alterations in the epigenome, which may lead to an increased risk of obesity later in life.

Method:

This paper provides a systematic review of studies investigating the association between obesity and either global, site-specific or genome-wide methylation of DNA. Studies on the impact of pre- and postnatal interventions on methylation and obesity are also reviewed. We discuss outstanding questions, and introduce EpiSCOPE, a multidisciplinary research program aimed at increasing the understanding of epigenetic changes in emergence of obesity.

Results:

An electronic search for relevant articles, published between September 2008 and September 2013 was performed. From the 319 articles identified, 46 studies were included and reviewed. The studies provided no consistent evidence for a relationship between global methylation and obesity. The studies did identify multiple obesity-associated differentially methylated sites, mainly in blood cells. Extensive, but small, alterations in methylation at specific sites were observed in weight loss intervention studies, and several associations between methylation marks at birth and later life obesity were found.

Conclusions:

Overall, significant progress has been made in the field of epigenetics and obesity and the first potential epigenetic markers for obesity that could be detected at birth have been identified. Eventually this may help in predicting an individual’s obesity risk at a young age and opens possibilities for introducing targeted prevention strategies. It has also become clear that several epigenetic marks are modifiable, by changing the exposure in utero, but also by lifestyle changes in adult life, which implies that there is the potential for interventions to be introduced in postnatal life to modify unfavourable epigenomic profiles.

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Acknowledgements

Funding for EpiSCOPE is received from the Science and Industry Endowment Fund (Australia), grant RP03-064. BSM and JLM are each supported by a Career Development Fellowship from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia. We thank Natalie Luscombe-Marsh and Nathan O’Callaghan for their critical reading of the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

Affiliations

  1. CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences, Preventative Health Flagship, North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia

    • S J van Dijk
    • , P L Molloy
    •  & H Varinli
  2. Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, New South Wales, Australia

    • H Varinli
  3. Cancer Research Program, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Darlinghurst, New South Wales, Australia

    • H Varinli
  4. Early Origins of Adult Health Research Group, School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

    • J L Morrison
  5. FOODplus Research Centre, School of Agriculture Food and Wine, Waite Campus, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

    • B S Muhlhausler
  6. Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

    • B S Muhlhausler

Consortia

  1. members of EpiSCOPE

    M Buckley, CSIRO Computational Informatics, North Ryde, NSW, Australia; SJ Clark, Epigenetics Group, Cancer Research Program, Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Darlinghurst, NSW, Australia; IC McMillen, School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia, Adelaide, SA, Australia; M Noakes, CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences, Adelaide, SA, Australia; K Samaras, Diabetes and Obesity Program, Garvan Institute of Medical Research and Department of Endocrinology, St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, NSW, Australia; RL Tellam, CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences, St Lucia, QLD, Australia.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to B S Muhlhausler.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2014.34

Supplementary Information accompanies this paper on International Journal of Obesity website (http://www.nature.com/ijo)

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