PULLMAN — Microscopic roundworms are helping scientists better understand what regulates cholesterol and fatty acid levels in the body, according to Washington State University researcher Jennifer Watts.

Her work is included in an article published today in the scientific journal Nature.
The article, with lead authors from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center and Harvard Medical School, focuses on a substance that activates the SREBP protein, which in turn, activates genes that regulate cholesterol and fatty acids levels.

Watts, an assistant research professor in the Institute of Biological Chemistry and a scientist in the WSU Agricultural Research Center, uses C. elegans to examine the role unsaturated fatty acids play.

“The roundworms are easy to study because all of their genes have been mapped and techniques exist which allow us to turn them on and off in order to see how they function in the worms,” she said.

That made them a perfect model for the SREBP work.

“We have identified a number of genes which regulate fat storage. In the absence of the mediator and SREBP proteins, those genes were turned off, and the worms lost a lot of their fat stores,” Watts said. She helped analyze results data for the Nature article.

In the long term, the work of the team that wrote the article as well as the work of Watts individually could lead to an answer to the obesity problems that plague many humans today. “The more you understand about how it works, the more possibilities there are to develop drugs or treatments,” she said.