The contribution of animal models to the study of obesity

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Obesity results from prolonged imbalance of energy intake and energy expenditure. Animal models have provided a fundamental contribution to the historical development of understanding the basic parameters that regulate the components of our energy balance. Five different types of animal model have been employed in the study of the physiological and genetic basis of obesity. The first models reflect single gene mutations that have arisen spontaneously in rodent colonies and have subsequently been characterized. The second approach is to speed up the random mutation rate artificially by treating rodents with mutagens or exposing them to radiation. The third type of models are mice and rats where a specific gene has been disrupted or over-expressed as a deliberate act. Such genetically-engineered disruptions may be generated through the entire body for the entire life (global transgenic manipulations) or restricted in both time and to certain tissue or cell types. In all these genetically-engineered scenarios, there are two types of situation that lead to insights: where a specific gene hypothesized to play a role in the regulation of energy balance is targeted, and where a gene is disrupted for a different purpose, but the consequence is an unexpected obese or lean phenotype. A fourth group of animal models concern experiments where selective breeding has been utilized to derive strains of rodents that differ in their degree of fatness. Finally, studies have been made of other species including non-human primates and dogs. In addition to studies of the physiological and genetic basis of obesity, studies of animal models have also informed us about the environmental aspects of the condition. Studies in this context include exploring the responses of animals to high fat or high fat/high sugar (Cafeteria) diets, investigations of the effects of dietary restriction on body mass and fat loss, and studies of the impact of candidate pharmaceuticals on components of energy balance. Despite all this work, there are many gaps in our understanding of how body composition and energy storage are regulated, and a continuing need for the development of pharmaceuticals to treat obesity. Accordingly, reductions in the use of animal models, while ethically desirable, will not be feasible in the short to medium term, and indeed an expansion in activity using animal models is anticipated as the epidemic continues and spreads geographically.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)413-432
Number of pages20
JournalLaboratory Animals
Issue number4
Early online date9 Sept 2008
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2008


  • obesity
  • animal models
  • genetics
  • genetic modification
  • dieting
  • caloric restriction
  • high-fat diet
  • dependent diabetes-mellitus
  • male collared lemmings
  • brown adipose-tissue
  • sprague-dawley rats
  • cafeteria-fed rats
  • hamsters mesocricetus-auratus
  • congenital leptin deficiency
  • hypothalamic gene-expression
  • quantitative trait loci


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