Nutritional sciences is a rapidly growing field of research — one that has changed its focus and method of exploration immensely in the last century and the social impact of which continues to grow. Although the study of foods and their health effects has been around for a very long time, the modern field of nutritional sciences research really began to take form in the early 1900s when the first vitamins were isolated and chemically understood.
By the middle of the 20th century, the field had successfully identified all of the major vitamins and was well into the exploration of their effect on specific ailments: single nutrient deficiency diseases. In the last few decades, nutrition research has begun to focus on chronic illnesses, requiring a much more complex understanding of nutrients’ impacts and interactions.
A part of UC Berkeley’s freshly renamed Rausser College of Natural Resources, the nutritional sciences and toxicology department, located in Morgan Hall, explores a wide range of important subfields. The research labs affiliated with the department concentrate on topics from molecular nutrient delivery in mammalian cells to human health policy and are separated into six larger subgroups: endocrinology; metabolic regulation and basis of diseases; metabolic flux analysis and metabolomics; nutrients, toxins and carcinogenesis; adipocyte biology and vitamins and minerals.
“The application of this field informs recommendations for dietary patterns to achieve optimum health and the treatment or prevention of chronic disease conditions,” the department’s website explains. And the global field of nutritional sciences would agree. The biggest topics in the field over the last year encompass things like the role of your microbiome in your overall health, the importance of adolescent nutrition, the influence cannabis has on health and the effects of high-fat ketogenic diets.
Wei-Chieh Mu, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Chen Lab, graduated from National Taiwan University with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biochemical science and technology. Her research at UC Berkeley addresses the onset of chronic disease through the lens of nutritional sciences.
The website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes chronic diseases as conditions that persist for longer than one year, require medical attention and place limits on the patient’s daily life. Six out of 10 Americans suffer from a chronic illness and one of the top four lifestyle risks is poor nutrition. Research into the effects that nutrition has on the body and on chronic illness is incredibly important as the number of people with these disorders continues to rise rapidly in the United States.
Mu’s lab uses mice to study the development of chronic diseases over a lifespan, and she spoke about how this might be one of the obstacles the field of nutritional sciences research will have to address in the future.
“Our department mainly does molecular studies with cells, mice and animal models,” Mu said. “When we want to translate those findings into humans, we will also need to consider how certain populations may have certain eating habits or patterns and what their genetic backgrounds are. So when we think of taking into account all the different factors this becomes really complicated.”
“For now, people might develop Type 2 diabetes or heart disease or some chronic disease in their 60s, so we will try to see if we can postpone these diseases until they’re maybe 80 years old” — Wei Chieh Mu
Mu’s research is a bit different from other labs in the department that focus more on metabolism. She looks for the different molecular pathways that are important in aging and manipulates certain genes to observe how this affects the cell’s health and the overall health of mice, depending on their age. The impact that Mu hopes her research will have is on the onset of chronic diseases.
“For now, people might develop Type 2 diabetes or heart disease or some chronic disease in their 60s, so we will try to see if we can postpone these diseases until they’re maybe 80 years old,” Mu added.
When asked what drew her attention and interest to nutritional sciences, Mu explained a lot of biochemistry textbooks focus on the same metabolic pathways that she tangibly applies to her research in this field. Nutrition research uses these pathways and our knowledge of them as tools to help people live better and healthier lives.
Her research allows her to combine the studies of biochemistry and human physiology to search for ways to decrease the number of years a person will suffer from a chronic illness.
While it might seem that the majority of nutritional sciences research would be focused on human subjects — what they eat and how diets affect general health — most modern research in the field is focused on specific molecular aspects of nutrition. The relevance of this field and its social impact will continue to increase as we see people living longer and longer lives. As Mu said, “That’s what the aging field is trying to do: to promote healthy aging.”
Contact Megan Sousa at [email protected].