Missing Genes Could Turn You Into A Couch Potato
September 6, 2011

Missing Genes Could Turn You Into A Couch Potato


While some “couch potatoes” might attribute their lack of resolve to exercise to mere laziness, researchers have discovered these people may simply be missing some vital genes.

The scientists at McMaster University made their unexpected finding while working with healthy, custom-bred mice, some of which had two muscle genes essential for exercise removed.  The genes control the protein AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), an enzyme that is switched on when you exercise.

"Mice love to run," said Gregory Steinberg, associate professor of medicine in the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University.

"While the normal mice could run for miles, those without the genes in their muscle could only run the same distance as down the hall and back,” he said.

“It was remarkable. The mice looked identical to their brothers or sisters but within seconds we knew which ones had the genes and which one didn't."

The researchers found the mice without the muscle AMPK genes had lower levels of mitochondria and an impaired ability for their muscles to take up glucose during exercise.

"When you exercise you get more mitochondria growing in your muscle. If you don't exercise, the number of mitochondria goes down. By removing these genes we identified the key regulator of the mitochondria is the enzyme AMPK," said Steinberg.

While thousands of scientists around the world are working on AMPK, the McMaster team is the first to demonstrate its critical role in exercise. 

Steinberg said the findings are important for individuals who find it difficult to exercise, such as the obese, asthmatics and people in wheelchairs. Their inability to exercise may lead to other complications such as diabetes and heart disease.

The study carries a cautionary message for couch potatoes, he said.

"As we remove activity from our lives due to emerging technology, the base level of fitness in the population is going down and that is reducing the mitochondria in people's muscles. This in turn makes it so much harder for people to start exercising."

Steinberg himself runs or bikes to work.

"It is the only way that I can manage to make sure I stay fit."

The research appears in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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