Leaders in Precision Nutrition
Texas A&M AgriLife Research continues to advance the state of science by understanding intricate connections among diet, nutrition and human health — especially the unique nutrition characteristics of individual people, known as precision nutrition. This page explores a selection of ongoing studies and impactful strides by AgriLife Research scientists, who continue to push boundaries in understanding how the food each person consumes can contribute to healthier populations and thriving food systems.
Discovering the ‘Exfoliome’: The Role of Diet, Microbes as Stem Cell Modifiers in Colon Cancer
For the last 32 years, Robert Chapkin, Ph.D., Texas A&M Department of Nutrition Distinguished professor, Allen Endowed Chair in Nutrition & Chronic Disease Prevention and National Cancer Institute Outstanding Investigator Award Recipient, College Station, has conducted revolutionary work around noninvasive means of investigating and modeling the role of nutrition in infant development into adulthood. His team’s discovery of what has become known as the “exfoliome,” as well as studies of the gut microbiome in infants, has changed the way in which science investigates nutritional impacts in humans.
The lack of a noninvasive approach to repeatedly access tissue along the intestinal tract has hampered researchers’ ability to study normal gut development and clinical responses to dietary or medical interventions. Thus, Chapkin spearheaded the discovery of the field of noninvasive precision exfoliomics — development of mRNA-based biomarkers using stool derived exfoliated cells shed from the neonatal and adult intestinal tract. This transformative body of work has enabled big-data applications in precision analysis of gut microbe (prokaryotic) and host (eukaryotic) crosstalk in response to diet and chronic disease risk.
Understanding the specifics of gut microbes through advanced phenotyping opens the door to explore precision therapies to improve human health on an individualized basis.
This discovery method has impacted our understanding of neonatal and early childhood development in relation to diet, particularly in studying the effects of breast milk vs. formula. At the same time, it has opened the doors to exploring host-microbe crosstalk and has allowed us to better understand the role diet plays in colon cancer prevention.
The noninvasive approach was used in a previous study to examine diet and microbes as modifiers to stem cell homeostasis and colon cancer in mice. The results demonstrated that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil have synergistic effects when combined with dietary fiber or curcumin, which is found in turmeric, in dramatically reducing colon cancer risk by selectively destroying damaged stem cells through a process called ferroptosis.
These preclinical findings suggest that a pescatarian vegetarian diet (high in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber) might help lower the risk of colon cancer in humans by destroying cancer stem cells before they have the chance to replicate. This project has since moved to the clinical research stage thanks to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant in collaboration with the Fred Hutchison Cancer Center in Seattle, WA.
More about Chapkin’s work in AgriLife Today
Select academic publications from Chapkin’s lab
Find a comprehensive list of Chapkin’s scholarly articles at TAMU Scholars.
Researchers at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center in Bryan-College Station are reinventing the way we improve cultivars of fruits and vegetables through a “table-to-farm” approach – reversing the supply chain to consider the consumer first and creating a sustainable, system-based approach that focuses on the health and nutritional benefits of produce grown in Texas.
Vegetables and fruits are essential for good nutrition and health, but, on average, only 9% of Americans consume the daily recommended value. In addition, cases of obesity, diabetes and other metabolic diseases are growing exponentially in the U.S. — to the tune of roughly $1 trillion per year in medical costs.
Center Director Bhimanagouda Patil, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Leonard Pike University Professor in the Department of Horticultural Science and Interim Head, Department of Food Science and Technology, derived the reverse approach to address the alarming statistics. By considering consumer demands before all else, researchers hope to boost consumption of nutritious produce by creating cultivars that are more appealing to quality, aesthetic and flavor preferences. Success in spurring broader consumption would, in turn, benefit producers and retailers by increasing demand-driven profits.
Extensive industry-adjacent studies and surveys conducted by the center show that consumers consider looks, taste and nutritional value as the three main factors that influence their purchasing tendencies. This research has continued to guide how researchers determine overarching crop improvement initiatives and major grants for which to contend.
Overall, the table-to-farm approach aims to help consumers make sense of their vast array of produce choices. Through the work of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, Texans can make smarter decisions as higher-quality and lower-cost produce becomes available at retailers.
Select research summaries from the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center
More about the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center and Patil in AgriLife Today
Find a comprehensive listing of Patil’s scholarly articles at TAMU Scholars.
Enhancing the Quality of Nutrient-Dense Spinach
The key to advancing nutrition through diet is the wide adoption of increasingly nutritious products. The work of Carlos Avila, Ph.D., a Texas A&M AgriLife Research associate professor with the Texas A&M Department of Horticultural Sciences, Weslaco, links nodes along the food supply chain, starting with better-looking, nutritious fruits and vegetables that meet the agronomic performance required by growers, and quality demands by retailers and consumers.
Avila and his team at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center at Weslaco are focused on enhancing the quality of nutrient-dense spinach through a market-driven approach with key stakeholders, incentivizing and promoting spinach production and consumption in the state of Texas.
By collaborating with stakeholders at different stages of the value chain, leafy green products are being improved to satisfy standards from producer to consumer. Enhanced spinach cultivars must be better-looking, tastier and increasingly nutritious, with longer shelf life, augmented resistance to environmental threats in the field, greater yield and, thus, increased commercial value.
Avila’s research team has discovered, for example, that by increasing the Vitamin C content in spinach, they can improve agronomic performance while providing an increasingly nutrient-dense product that is healthier for Texans.
Researchers anticipate that the availability of new Vitamin C-packed spinach will lead to enhanced shelf life, improving commercialization and demand, and providing economic and environmental returns along the value chain. At the same time, the team’s focus on the consumption of nutrient-dense leafy greens aims to reduce fat and calorie intake in the fight against chronic, diet-related diseases.
More about Avila’s work in AgriLife Today
More about spinach production in AgriLife Today
Select academic publications from Avila’s lab
Find a comprehensive listing of Avila’s scholarly articles at TAMU Scholars.
Effects of Dark Sweet Cherries on Gut Microbiota, Obesity and Diabetes and Breast Cancer Prevention
Dark sweet cherries could be next in line for the title of “superfood.” Giuliana Noratto, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research associate research scientist in the Department of Food Science and Technology, Bryan-College Station, works to understand the nutritional benefits of these pitted fruits, which might include offsetting risks associated with obesity and even modulating breast cancer tumor growth in mice.
Gut Microbiota, Obesity and Diabetes
Dark sweet cherries contain fiber and bioactive compounds like antioxidants, which can alter the complex gut microbiota — the bacterial grounds found in the gastrointestinal tract — of their hosts, which could help lower the risk of disease associated with obesity and diabetes.
In a preclinical study led by Noratto, researchers examined the effect dark sweet cherry powder consumption had on the gut microbiota of obese diabetic mice over 12-weeks. Findings from this study showed that cherry powder reduced inflammation biomarkers in plasma and liver. Their studies have since entered clinical trials, where researchers investigate the clinical implications of cherry consumption as a dietary supplement in diabetic and obese human patients. Specifically, they seek to understand how dark sweet cherry juice affects host-microbiota, liver and brain function.
While it remains too early to tell whether an extensive study will yield similar results in humans, Noratto sees promise – especially involving the potential for increased cognitive function.
Breast Cancer Prevention
In another preclinical study led by Noratto, her team found that consumption of dark sweet cherry juice correlates with suppressed tumor growth in mice with breast cancer. The results showed that cherry anthocyanins suppressed oncogenic and invasive biomarkers in cancer cells grown in a petri dish and in tumors implanted in mice.
Noratto and her team hope to secure a grant to implement this research in a clinical trial, to study the effects of dark sweet cherry juice on breast cancer in women.
Dietary Intervention and Precision Nutrition
While it’s unlikely that the results of these studies will present dark sweet cherries as the cure for disease or cancer, they will give scientists a deeper understanding of the bigger role nutrition plays on the body’s natural ability to heal and prevent disease. Research like this brings humanity one step closer to understanding diet intervention as a key component of precision nutrition.
Select academic publications from Noratto’s lab
Dark sweet cherry (Prunus avium) phenolics enriched in anthocyanins induced apoptosis in MDA-MB-453 breast cancer cells through MAPK-dependent signaling and reduced invasion via Akt and PLCγ-1 downregulation
More about Noratto’s work in AgriLife Today
Find a comprehensive listing of Noratto’s scholarly articles at TAMU Scholars.
The Role of ‘Hunger Hormone’ in Inflammaging and Associated Chronic Diseases
The gut hormone ghrelin has been referred to as “the hunger hormone” as it has long been known to regulate hunger in humans and other mammals. Over the last two decades, studies have revealed that ghrelin and its receptor, GHS-R, play important roles in various organ systems and disease conditions, but little is known about the underpinning mechanisms. A prerequisite of drug development is understanding how GHS-R works. Now, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research team led by Yuxiang Sun, Ph.D., associate professor in the Texas A&M University Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Bryan-College Station, has made ghrelin and GHS-R the crux of their work.
Sun’s team has discovered the novel role of GHS-R in macrophages, which are very important immune cells that serve as “gatekeepers,” defending against pathogens. They found that GHS-R in macrophages is increased with inflammation and aging. By pioneering “knockout” for GHS-R in mice — effectively switching off certain inflammatory effects spurred by GHS-R in macrophages — Sun’s team has demonstrated GHS-R suppression in macrophages mitigates an array of metabolic dysfunctions associated with obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
The groundbreaking work of Sun’s team shows that ghrelin receptor GHS-R is a critical link between inflammation and metabolism, and GHS-R is a central regulator of macrophages controlling inflammation and inflammation-associated chronic diseases. Their findings suggest that GHS-R might be a promising drug target for obesity, diabetes, inflammation, aging
, and neurogenerative diseases.
How does the ghrelin system impact the overall health outcome in aging? Could GHS-R research lead to new and powerful immunotherapies for humans? Would studies of the multifunctional ghrelin system lead us closer to a “fountain of youth and health”? These questions fuel and guide the team’s research as they explore new molecular landscapes of aging-biology to improve human quality of life.
Sun’s lab is currently funded by two NIH R01s to study immunometabolism and inflamm-aging, as well as a grant from BrightFocus foundation to study Alzheimer’s disease.
More about Sun’s work in AgriLife Today
Select academic publications from Sun’s lab
Find a comprehensive listing of Sun’s scholarly articles at TAMU Scholars.
More about Nutrition in AgriLife Today
The theme for this year’s National Nutrition Month is “Personalize Your Plate,” and Texas A&M AgriLife is taking this opportunity to emphasize the importance of individualized diet and precision nutrition to meet specific health needs and goals.
A study by researchers at the Texas A&M University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has shown the choice of household juicing technique can affect the healthful qualities of common vegetable juices.
A Texas A&M AgriLife study with sheep may soon help address fertility problems in women, if it can discover ways to break the chain of generational transfer of polycystic ovary syndrome, PCOS — one of the most common infertility disorders.