Food, Genetics and their Risk-Benefit Ratio

The Environmental Genome Project (EGP) could change forever the way we think about toxins. The first phase of EGP is nearing completion and promises to elucidate the variations in over 200 genes that repair DNA and cell cycle control genes. Subsequent goals are to identify metabolism genes, signal transduction genes, and apoptosis genes (genes controlling “voluntary” cell death). The DNA repair genes will be the first to impact the dietary supplement/health ingredient community as plants may be selectively bred to contain specific “toxins.” “Toxins” are not always associated with a negative outcome; some can act in beneficial ways, for instance, targeting cancer cells or disease causing organisms. Although the potential is there, specific targeting is not easy due to extreme complex molecular variability in each individual, as shown in the research on detection of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) – some people will have the right combination and others will not for the “toxin” to work appropriately. This variability will inevitably impede developments in disease prevention that will be effective for all; so then, why not just determine the various SNPs for everyone? Money – detection of SNPs in individuals is costly.

A working example of the difference in SNPs was described by Dr. Smith of the University of California, who recently reported on industry workers exposed to benzene. Those workers who do not consume sufficient folate as part of their diet are prone to develop leukemia. Dr. Smith also found that leukemia patients seem to lack two SNPs in folate genes that are found in those of healthy people. These findings provide some clues as to the potential benefit of discoveries to come.

The data from EGP will also assist toxicologists and other scientists calculate individual susceptibility to diseases triggered by diet and other environmental factors. Ultimately, individual diet and lifestyle are likely to be altered as the thresholds for risk-assessment and the determinations in setting safe levels for dietary ingredients are further refined.