We often talk about genetics as if it’s set in stone. “She just has good genes” or “He was born with it” are common phrases. However, over the past decade, biochemists and geneticists have discovered that your genetic expression changes over time.
Based on environmental factors, certain genes may be strongly expressive while others are dormant.
In fact, a 2016 study of human longevity found that only 25% of health outcomes are attributable to genetics. The other 75% of outcomes are attributable to environmental factors. Among those environmental factors, diet and nutrition play a major role. An entire branch of scientific research has now exploded around nutrigenomics, the study of the interaction between nutrition and genetics. Scientists now understand that genes set the baseline for how your body can function, but nutrition modifies the extent to which each gene is expressed.
As more data comes in about the types and quality of food that improve health outcomes, high-tech farmers are also entering the nutrigenomics conversation. Using precision agriculture, they hope to produce food that’s targeted to deliver a nutrient-rich, genetically beneficial diet.
Implications Of Nutrigenomics
Researchers have found that there’s no such thing as a perfect diet. Dietary recommendations are not one-size-fits-all. Each individual needs different nutritional choices for optimal health and gene expression. In addition, each person is different in the extent to which their genes and health are impacted by their diet.
Geneticists and nutritionists are working together to study the dietary levers that most impact genetic expression. If they’re successful, it may be possible to prevent and treat disease through individualized nutrition tailored to your genetic profile. Indeed, you may walk into a doctor’s office and leave with a dietary “prescription” customized to your DNA.
“In the near future, instead of diagnosing and treating diseases caused by genome or epigenome damage, health care practitioners may be trained to diagnose and nutritionally prevent or even reverse genomic damage and aberrant gene expression,” reports Michael Fenech, a research scientist at CSIRO Genome Health and Nutrigenomics Laboratory.
The initial results of nutrigenomics studies are promising. A healthy, personalized diet has the potential to prevent, mitigate, or even cure certain chronic diseases. Nutrigenomics has shown promise in preventing obesity, cancer and diabetes.
If Food Is Medicine, Food Quality Matters
Nutrient abundance or deficiency is the driving factor behind nutrigenomics. Foods that have grown in poor conditions have a lower nutritional density. In turn, eating low-quality foods can have a significant impact on human gene expression. In order to take advantage of the findings of nutrigenomics, consumers need access to high-quality, nutrient-dense foods.
Similar to human health, plant health is impacted by the combination of genes and nutrient intake. Healthy soil, correctly applied fertilization techniques, and other forms of environmental management lead to healthy crops.
However, applying these custom growing techniques at a large scale is a major challenge. Agriculture technology (AgTech) will play a big role in allowing farmers to precisely manage the growing conditions and nutrient delivery for their crops. In turn, this precision farming will make crops more nutritious and targeted for nutrigenomics-driven diets.
Making Food That’s Better For Us
Plant health relies on nutrient uptake from the soil. In order to ensure plants receive the nutrients they need, farmers need to precisely apply additives where they’re needed. With in-ground sensors, advanced mapping of crop quality across a field, and other technologies, farmers can target their applications of water and nutrients to match plant needs. The days of broadly applying generic fertilizer to entire fields are coming to an end.
“Farmers play an integral role in providing access to diverse, nutritious food,” explains Remi Schmaltz, CEO of Decisive Farming. “Nutrient deficiency in plants and the soil can contribute to the deficiencies found in humans. The opportunity exists to address these deficiencies through precision nutrition delivered by the agriculture sector.”
Additionally, CRISPR and other technologies allow us to experiment with the genetic makeup of plants, increasing nutrition and flavor, both pluses for consumers. In recent years, genetic modification has produced disease-resistant bananas, more flavorful tomatoes, lower gluten wheat, non-browning mushrooms and sustainable rice. While there has been a lot of skepticism over genetically-modified crops, multiple studies have shown that GMOs are safe for consumption and can even improve plant health and nutrition.
Using Biochemistry And Big Data To Create Better Food And Healthier People
Nutrigenomics will completely change how we think about health and disease prevention. Indeed, personalized diet recommendations that are tailored to your genes could be a new form of medicine for chronic illnesses.
Nevertheless, a key part of making nutrigenomics effective is having access to high-quality, nutrient-dense foods. AgTech is using the internet of things, AI, precision farming and gene editing to make nutrient-dense food more readily available. The benefits to public health from these efforts could change the way we think about medicine, longevity and what it means to be healthy.