McGill University researchers have discovered a previously unknown mutation in a common roundworm that holds promise of new treatments for obesity in humans.
In lean times, a normal Caenorhabditis elegans worm goes into a form of suspended animation called "dauer" that slows its metabolism and allows it to survive for extended periods without food.
"When they go into dauer, these worms radically alter their metabolism. They shut down everything energy-consuming, which includes foraging, cell division and reproduction," Nature quoted Dr. Richard Roy, a cancer researcher at McGill's Department of Biology specializing in the control of cell division, as saying.
Unlike other "hibernating" organisms, C. elegans maintains a degree of mobility during dauer by stocking up on energy in the form of fats - or lipids - which they store in special cells or reserves.
"This allows them to live up to six months without eating, instead of the two weeks they would otherwise have," Roy explained.
"These mutants somehow cannot shut down the process of cell division, which is why we noticed them in the first place. However, that's not what kills them. They cannot adjust their metabolism correctly. They store up their six-month lipid reserves, but as soon as they shift into dauer they use them up within a few days.
"This is because they lack an enzyme that blocks the activity of a very important triglyceride lipase. Without this regulation the lipase burns up all the fat it encounters and destroys the worm's energy reserves," Roy said.
The next step, the researchers say, is to begin looking at this enzyme in humans, and see if they could develop drugs to temporarily stop the enzyme from regulating the fat-burning lipase, thereby allowing the lipase to tear through lipids on a fat-burning spree.
Roy believes this discovery, which will require considerable additional research, may have significant long-term implications for human health.
Their study was published Dec. 3 in the journal Nature.