Each month, The Michigan Daily’s research beat publishes a feature on one University of Michigan laboratory to highlight the efforts of the lab team and the importance of the research. The following article is the lab spotlight for the month of January, 2023.

To nominate a U-M research lab for upcoming spotlight features, fill out this form.

The Daily’s inaugural lab spotlight is the Laboratory of Nutrigenomics, established and led by Monica Dus, professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology in LSA. The lab’s primary focus is the study of how interactions between food, genes and the brain influence health and disease.

The Lab

The Laboratory of Nutrigenomics is bright and vibrant, perched on the fourth floor of the Biological Sciences Building. The lab’s glass walls invite both sunlight and the numerous undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs and lab technicians to filter in and out of the space. 

Adjacent to the wet lab is Dus’ office, the door easily identifiable by the presence of a paper unicorn. Dus’ personality and passion for her work is exemplified by the pink, sparkly, sugar-themed decorations sprawled across her office walls. A framed photograph features the original inspiration for Dus’ research: her dogs. 

“What led me to study food was my two dogs, Cupcake and Sprinkles,” Dus said in an interview with The Daily. “When I was in graduate school, they ate 10% of their body weight in chicken jerky. I left a bag of chicken jerky on top of the kitchen table. They’re little dogs, I don’t know how they got it, but they did, and they were sort of passed out in a food coma. That really struck me because I started thinking: how is it possible that these two little creatures would eat so much, and make themselves so sick with it? That got me really interested in how the brain perceives food.”

Dus decided to apply her curiosity regarding her dogs’ food-induced lethargy to humans and founded the Laboratory of Nutrigenomics at the University in 2015, focusing on the study of food components as fuel for cells in the body via genes. 

“The way cells receive information and integrate is through genes,” Dus said. “That’s how I eventually got into genomics, the connection of food and the brain and looking at what bridge is, which is these nutrient sensitive genes.” 

Dus explained the subject of nutrigenomics as the interaction between food and DNA, specifically how nutrients within food are catalysts for genetic expression in the body. 

“It turns out that nutrients can essentially act on these little switches (in your DNA),” Dus said. “You can think of the genetic switches of the switches in the light switches in the room, only that instead of being next to the door, imagine they’re hidden under the bed. And so you have to do a lot of work to either turn them up or down.”

Dus isn’t the only one calling the lab home. A large research team consisting of four post-doctoral research fellows, one laboratory technician, one master’s student and five undergraduate research assistants spoke with The Daily on their work alongside Dus on the lab’s many projects. 

Post-doctoral research fellow Daniel Wilinski said his role in the lab is primarily concerned with data collection and analysis. 

“I generate lots of data,” Wilinski said. “It takes a long time to understand and generate (data) and then I think that’s kind of an undersold aspect of what we do.”

LSA senior Carina Yiu said her experience in the lab is different each day and can come with a wide variety of responsibilities. When analyzing data, she said some days are more regular. However, when she is running experiments, many days can be chaotic. 

“I would say there’s not really a normal day in the lab,” Yiu said. “I think when you’re doing data analysis and just analyzing stuff that you have, that (day) is maybe more typical … but when you have ongoing experiments, your day completely revolves around them. There are some days when we’re raising flies on a diet and you come into the lab multiple times (in one day)”

Yiu said she applied to work in the Laboratory of Nutrigenomics after taking a genetics course with Dus during her sophomore year. Arawn to Dus’ genuine passion for her work and field of study. Yiu said she continues to hold Dus in high regard: “She’s a badass.”

The Research

One of the lab’s main projects over the past few years has examined the brain’s perception of sugar, and how that perception can be affected by sugar itself. Dus explained how many of the foods people eat are high in sugar due to food processing, which can lead to a higher sugar intake than expected. 

“We have been focusing on high sugar, not because we all have cake for breakfast, but because most of the food we eat out of convenience and cost is processed,” Dus said. “Processed food has a lot of this extra hidden sugar in there and we don’t know, so we end up having a lot more sugar than we’re supposed to.”

The Laboratory of Nutrigenomics worked in collaboration with the U-M Department of Pharmacology in the medical school to exhibit the effects of excessive sugar intake on the brain, using flies and rats to observe the biological changes.

“One of the things we’ve been looking at is how having that much sugar in our diet affects the way we can perceive the sweetness of food — we have shown that in flies and also in rats … When those animals have a lot of sugar or sweetness in their diet, their perception of sweetness actually goes down. In other words, they don’t lose their sweet tooth, but (the original amount of sugar) doesn’t taste as sweet to them. We’ve shown that this decrease in sweet sensation actually changes the way animals approach food and makes them eat more (sugar).”

Wilinski elaborated on how the lab models systems of taste and how diets can affect taste perception. He explained this concept using the real-world example of a scone. 

“So I just was eating a scone a few minutes ago and it was kind of sweet, a little bit salty and delicious,” Wilinski said. “(The scone) is going to prime me for my lunch in a different way than if I wouldn’t have been primed — my taste buds will be different.”

In the future, the lab is looking forward to a shift to multi-generational genetics research, which involves how the sugar intake of parent fruit flies influences an offspring’s genes, nutrition and metabolism.

“We are looking at the effects of the parental diet on the development of their offspring,” Dus said. “For flies, the biological mothers and fathers have extra sugar in their diet … We look at what that egg has inherited, not just the genetic information but also the nutritional or metabolic information. We look at how they use that information to develop, especially to develop their brain — we’re finding some quite interesting things there.”

The Significance

Though the Laboratory of Nutrigenomics primarily conducts research on fruit flies and rats, many of the lab’s findings are applicable to the human brain. Dus explained how recent research findings can be interpreted in the human diet.

“We found that having additional sugar in the diet at a higher level decreases the ability of the animal to sense sweetness, and this happens in the taste nerve,” Dus said. “It happens in our mouth, essentially, and it’s transmitted to the brain, and has other effects like promoting more eating.”

Dus said she takes pride in her commitment to science communication. She has authored several comic books and essays, been a guest on six different podcasts — including NPR’s All Things Considered — and hosts her own podcast with her students, entitled Neuroepic Podcast. Dus also has two exhibits featured in the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, has been featured in numerous documentaries and has given several public lectures

While explaining her devotion to science communication, Dus compared the beauty of science to the beauty of art. Dana added that since science can be more difficult to communicate because of technical knowledge, she is trying to bridge the gap and make science more accessible.

“I honestly love science; I think it’s beautiful, and I think nature is beautiful,” Dus said. “There are so many beautiful things that you can see and appreciate with your eyes, without spending so much time studying them, and I want to share this beauty. It’s not that different from a painter or a poet, but (they) can communicate their art or feelings in a much more immediate way because it’s easier to connect. Science is harder to connect because you need all this technical knowledge.”

Dus added that the slow-paced nature of research can, at times, be boring and frustrating. She said she enjoys the fast pace of public communication.

“(Science communication) breaches the really slow pace of research, which can take a very long time,” Dus said. “It’s rigorous and can be boring and defeating (given) the immediate impact that science can have on the world.”

The lab team believes in the importance of their work and their teamwork. Yiu expressed gratitude for the kindness shown by other lab team members. She said the environment is comfortable and she is proud of the work they are doing. 

“I’m very lucky to be here; I have worked with great people,” Yiu said. “I have questions all the time, and I have no hesitation asking them to anyone in the lab — everyone is so kind and helpful.”

Yiu also discussed the significance of nutrigenomic research as a potential solution to global nutritional problems, especially in the United States. She said the topic is important, yet currently under-researched.

“The field of nutrition is so important to me for so many reasons,” Yiu said. “(There are) so many different aspects that are so important and under-researched.”

Daily Staff Reporters Jingqi Zhu, Nadia Taeckens and Amer Goel contributed reporting to this article.

Daily News Editor Carlin Pendell can be reached at cpendell@umich.edu.