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Obesity And Environmental Chemicals: Research Probes Potential Link

through pregnancy and lactation, stages Carey describes as critical windows for exposure. At the molecular level, Small will examine what PBDEs are doing to stem cell populations within the adipose tissue and the effects of PBDEs on gene expression. Does exposure to PBDEs, which mimic estrogen and thyroid hormones in the body, make cells more likely to develop into fat cells? “Everything I do has to do with how changes in signaling result in changes in gene expression,” she says.

Carey’s work is at the cellular level. Isolating the fat tissue of these animals, Carey will explore the insulin sensitivity of fat cells. Preliminary data from her lab suggest that chronic exposure to PBDEs could cause fat cells to become less sensitive to insulin, which is a forerunner to developing Type II diabetes. The fat cells of growing male rats that were fed PBDEs daily for a month acted metabolically like the fat cells of obese rats, although the PBDE-fed rats weighed the same as a control group.

Tagliaferro, whose research interests concern whole-body energy and metabolism questions, will assess sensitivity of all body tissues to insulin, as well as examine the food intake, body weight changes, and energy metabolism of the rat pups once they are weaned from their mothers. PBDEs, the researchers note, seem to interrupt thyroid hormone levels, which may impact caloric expenditure.

“There’s much more to obesity than eating too much McDonald’s and not exercising,” says Small. “PBDEs may be one of the confounding factors to obesity.”

With the research just getting underway, the scientists are duly cautious about predicting outcomes. If findings implicate PBDEs in obesity, Carey notes, the news would be good and bad.

“From a scientific standpoint, it would be very interesting if these animals began to put on weight,” she says. “But part of me hopes they don’t, because these chemicals are all around. But that’s the good thing
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