Can obesity be infectious? … Nerdy musings as the countdown to (relative) unemployment begins!

Today is the official start of my last month at work… SIMULTANEOUS “YAHOO” AND “EEEEEERMAGHERD”!

One month left of academic insanity, oddball scientists, brain-twisting theories, and mysterious substances found in unlabelled bottles. The impending end is starting to make me reminisce about the reasons I love (and sometimes hate) this career. Science isn’t a place for meek nerds that secretly want to make out with their microscope. Science is for ass-kicking nerds who fight for knowledge and are fueled by their love of learning. Science is for people that have strong minds and are willing to sacrifice so much of their lives in the battle for the truth.

Honestly, I’m looking forward to a break. Put down the sword and step out of the gladiator arena, just for a little while.

Even though the future feels weird and uncertain (which for a massive plan-loving dork like myself, is kinda melting my brain), I know that me and science are gonna be buddies for life. Maybe we won’t be in proper, cutthroat academia for a while, maybe the Ethiopian lab is gonna be a folding table in a tent, and maybe I won’t know what job I’ll have afterwards… but nevertheless, I still think science is sexy.

On that note, I thought I’d share some of the musings and random shiz that floats across my grey matter on a daily basis.

As you probably saw on my sciencey info ‘about’ page, I’m a metabolism nut. I’ve worked in the field of obesity, diabetes, and insulin-related doohickeys for near on 10 years.

One of the theories of obesity that has been proposed is this idea that it might be a little bit infectious. It would help explain why the world as a whole has been getting so much fatter over the last few decades.

‘Infectious?!?!?! Holy frijoles!’ I hear you say… but don’t worry, you’re not gonna pop out one day, get sneezed on by a carrier monkey, and suddenly become morbidly obese. This is not the place for pseudoscientific clickbait. (Sidenote: If you actually do want rubbish science, head over to the ‘Food Babe’ for some top-notch health crap).

Here’s a little glimpse into the science behind the theory that obesity could be partially transmitted like an infectious disease…

We all know that obesity can be ‘spread’ through shared habits (meeting friends for burgers instead of at the gym), cultural norms (yeah, I eat cookies and sweet pastries for breakfast every day), and environmental stuff (like living next door to KFC). But research also suggests that infectious agents like bacteria and viruses might also be influencing our global waistline expansion.

Hummingbird Bakery in London... where all my willpower breaks down
Hummingbird Bakery in London… where all my willpower breaks down

There is even a delightfully dorky term coined for precisely this concept: ‘Infectobesity

In the infectious spread of obesity, gut microbiota (the bugs that live in your poop factory) are major players. Intestinal microbial profile has been shown to be super different between skinny and obese humans… some experiments have even shown that a transfer of gut bacteria from skinny to obese people can have beneficial effects on health.

‘So, Mr. Jones, how do you want to take your poop pill? Orally or… in the back door?’

Poop transplants from metabolically healthy people are now being trialed to improve the health of those with metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes.

But the opposite is true too… Infection with different bacterial strains (e.g. certain strains of Enterobacter) can make you gain weight, become insulin resistant, and have super messed-up fat and glucose handling in your body.

Image from
Image from

Viruses are the next candidate for being obesity-inducing buttholes. One of the most intriguing is the human adenovirus AD-36, which was first isolated in 1978 from a German kid suffering from enteritis (inflammation in the small intestine). Exposure to this virus has been reported to increase the amount of body fat in mice, rats, chickens, and monkeys. Plus, AD-36 shows a striking correlation with human obesity – it’s found in ~30% of obese humans, but only 5% of lean people. Kids that carry the virus can be nearly 25kg (more than 50 pounds) heavier than uninfected children.

The good news is that further research into all this could discover an anti-viral or antibiotic treatment for obesity!

I won’t go too far into all the details, because it’s really not a simple story. In the last two decades, a whole bunch of fat-inducing bugs (‘adipogenic pathogens’ for the science types out there) have been thought to associate with human obesity. But whether or not they actually cause an increase in weight is still being investigated. A whooooole bunch more studies are required before we can fully understand the role of transmissible agents in such a complex metabolic situation as obesity.

Regardless, it’s certainly food for thought.


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