Australian researchers have discovered a gene in worms that could be the key to developing a world-first obesity treatment.
Scientists from Melbourne's Monash University, in collaboration with a team from the University of Copenhagen, discovered a gene in worms that could help break the cycle of over-eating and under-exercising that leads to obesity.
The researchers found that the gene, known as ETS-5, was responsible for triggering a feeling of fullness within worms as well as the need to sleep after eating.
A similar gene exists within humans, opening up the possibility of developing a drug that could cause the gene to trigger the feeling of fullness off smaller portions.
Roger Pocock, lead author of the study which published in prestigious U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday, explained that when the intestines had stored enough fat, the worm's brain received a message to stop moving, effectively putting it to sleep.
"When animals are malnourished they seek out food by roaming their environment. When they're well fed they have no need to roam, and when they're fully sated they enter a sleep-like state," Pocock said in a media release on Tuesday.
The study focused on the caenorhabditis elegans, commonly known as the roundworm, due to the simplicity of its brain. The roundworm brain contains 302 neurons and 8,000 synapses compared to billions of neurons and 100 trillion synapses in the human brain.
Despite the vast difference in brain complexity, Pocock said humans and roundworms share up to 80 per cent of their genes as well as half the known genes that are involved in human diseases.
"Because roundworms share so many genes with humans they are a great model system to investigate and gain a better understanding of processes like metabolism as well as diseases in humans," he said.
"The ETS family of genes is present in humans and has previously been linked to obesity regulation. Now that we've learned this gene family controls food intake through a feedback system to the brain, it represents a credible drug target for the treatment of obesity."