Hospital del Mar Research Institute Hospital del Mar Research Institute


14/01/2020 - Press release

Physical activity modifies the way our DNA works

It influences the structure of our DNA, but does not modify the sequence of our genes.

Physical activity is related to changes in the structure of our DNA but does not modify the sequence of letters in the genes, its primary structure, according to a study led by researchers at the Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute (IMIM). And by exercising in a moderate-vigorous way, i.e. walking briskly every day or doing sport for at least 30 minutes, we can maximise the benefits, This targets one of the key elements in the metabolism of triglycerides, which, in high concentrations, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. These DNA changes influence the way our genes are read and their expression level.

The study, published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, involved the IMIM's Epidemiology and Cardiovascular Genetics Group, as well as the CIBERCV, CIBERESP, CIBERONC, Josep Carreras Research Institute and the Faculty of Medicine at UVic-UCC. Dr. Roberto Elosua, coordinator of the IMIM research group and last author of the study, explains that "We know that lifestyle impacts the way the information contained in our genes is expressed, and we wondered whether physical activity could be related to a change in one of these biological mechanisms: DNA methylation."

The importance of DNA methylation

DNA methylation is a chemical change in the DNA molecule that does not alter the sequence of letters, but which determines the level of gene expression, their ability to generate proteins or not. DNA methylation levels have been linked to a number of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, among others.

"In the analyses, it was found that people who do more moderate-vigorous physical activity have lower levels of methylation at two DNA sites", explains researcher Alba Fernández Sanlés, one of the main authors of the study. In fact, this is the type of activity that is recommended for the general population to promote good health and is the one that provides the greatest benefit, according to the study. Methylation is a mechanism that regulates the ability of genes to express themselves, i.e. to produce or not to produce proteins.

Alba Fernández Sanlés points out that "One of the genes we found to have changes to its methylation marks is related to triglyceride metabolism. We know that physical activity decreases the levels of these, so our data suggest that methylation of this DNA site could be a mechanism that mediates the effect of physical activity on the triglycerides." The researchers analysed data from two Western populations, from the Catalan RECIGOR study (REgistre Gerundense del COR) and the US Framingham Offspring Study. In total, they were able to work with data on the physical activity of 2,544 people aged between 35 and 74, based on questionnaires validated by the international scientific community. DNA methylation was studied using blood samples from the volunteers, and more than 400,000 DNA markers were analysed throughout the genetic material of each of these individuals.

The researchers believe that lifestyle affects DNA methylation and that these changes may be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. "In previous studies we also saw that tobacco use modifies DNA methylation levels", says Dr. Elosua, who stresses "It is important to promote a healthy lifestyle that incorporates physical activity to prevent cardiovascular disease."

This project is funded by grants from the Generalitat de Catalunya and the Instituto de Salud Carlos III. 

Alba Fernández Sanlés i Roberto Elosua. Source: IMIM.

Reference article

Fernández-Sanlés A, Sayols-Baixeras S, Castro de Moura M, Esteller M, Subirana I, Torres-Cuevas S, Pérez-Fernández S, Aslibekyan S, Marrugat J, Elosua R. Physical Activity and Genome-wide DNA Methylation: The REGICOR Study. Med Sci Sports Exerc;2019 [Epub ahead of print]. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002174.

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