The Greek physician Hippocrates, often considered the father of medicine, was the first person recorded to suggest a relationship between nutrition and maintaining good health. In the thousands of years since, the effect of nutrition on health has gained a whole new perspective through a scientific area of study called “nutrigenomics.”
What is nutrigenomics?
Your pet’s genome consists of all of its genetic material, or DNA. It provides the basic information for your pet’s life. You can think of it as a blueprint, providing carefully drawn out plans for your pet’s healthy life. However, outside influences, such as the environment and nutrition, can have a strong impact on the expression of this genetic information, or essentially how that blueprint is read.
The canine and feline genome sequences were first reported in 2005 and 2007, respectively. These breakthroughs opened the door for cutting-edge research approaches to understand the molecular mechanisms behind everyday life. While knowing the DNA sequence of a genome is an essential first step, the real breakthroughs come from understanding how each of the genes in that sequence responds to outside influences and how this relates to health and disease.
By up-regulating (“turning on”) or down-regulating (“turning off”) genes, the body changes the levels of the proteins that make up structures and functions in the cells. This, in turn, alters physiological processes like energy production or immune response. Nutrigenomics is the field of research we use to study if changes in genes occur with changes in the animal’s diet. By understanding nutritional influences on the genome, we can understand how these responses impact animal health. Using DNA microarrays, the basis for nutrigenomic studies, allows researchers to evaluate the activity of thousands of genes at a time. These studies provide us with new tools for understanding how nutrients precisely work, why different forms of nutrients have different effects and how such nutrients can be optimized for health.
Nutrigenomics is disrupting the classical view of animal nutrition, allowing us to look at “you are what you eat” in a whole new light.
How can we use nutrigenomics in pet nutrition?
A vast amount of data is generated from nutrigenomic studies. From a single experiment, we find out how thousands of genes respond to a diet change. This slew of information can help elucidate the complex interactions between nutrition, an individual animal’s genetic code, and the onset or prevention of diseases and disorders. By considering these aspects of nutrient-gene interactions, we can ultimately design diets for the treatment or prevention of specific diseases. For instance, if we can understand the molecular changes that occur prior to the onset of joint inflammation and arthritis, we can potentially use nutrition to diminish these changes and prevent this disorder.
Nutrigenomics can also help us focus on the area of “precision nutrition.” This is especially important when considering the unique nutritional challenges of different breeds and life stages of pets. For instance, if a breed of dog is predisposed to a disease like obesity, researchers can use genomics to determine what changes occur in gene activity with the onset of disease. They can then test different diets to see what nutritional strategies can prevent these changes in gene expression.
Even further, we can use nutrigenomics to identify the unique nutrient requirements of different breeds, life stages or activity levels of pets. We can then use the information gathered to design appropriate and precise diets to these specific aspects, which will help ensure our pets experience optimal health and well-being.
Is this the future of nutrition?
The more we understand about nutrition, the more we can use it in the way Hippocrates envisioned, as a tool to fight disease and maintain good health. While the idea of personalized nutrition for pets is still a long way off, research in the field of nutrigenomics makes steps toward this ultimate goal every day. Even more important is that every bit of data generated in this quest helps us feed our pets better and make steps toward optimal health through nutrition.
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