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Is Obesity Infectious?

The concept that obesity may be infectious has gained traction in recent years, driven by the discovery of links between certain microbes and the development of obesity. In particular, research has focused on the role of the gut microbiota, adenoviruses, and other infectious agents in the development of obesity. This discussion will delve into the potential mechanisms underlying the infectious hypothesis of obesity and provide an overview of the current evidence supporting this concept.

The Gut Microbiota

The human gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiota. These microorganisms play a crucial role in various aspects of human health, including digestion, metabolism, immunity, and even behavior. Over the past few decades, research has uncovered a strong association between the gut microbiota and obesity, with alterations in the composition and function of the gut microbiota being linked to the development of obesity and related metabolic disorders.

Mechanisms of Action:

Several potential mechanisms have been proposed to explain how the gut microbiota may contribute to obesity:

Energy Harvest:

Obese individuals have been found to have a distinct gut microbial composition that is more efficient at extracting energy from the diet. This increased energy harvest may contribute to positive energy balance and weight gain.

Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs):

Gut bacteria ferment dietary fiber into SCFAs, such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate. While SCFAs play essential roles in gut health, some research has suggested that they may also promote weight gain by increasing energy storage and appetite regulation.


A dysbiotic gut microbiota has been implicated in the development of low-grade inflammation, which is known to contribute to obesity and insulin resistance.

Hormone Regulation:

The gut microbiota has been shown to influence the release of various hormones, including those involved in appetite regulation and energy metabolism, such as ghrelin, leptin, and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1).

Evidence from Animal Studies

Several animal studies have provided direct evidence for the role of the gut microbiota in obesity. One of the most compelling lines of evidence comes from studies using germ-free mice, which are born and raised in sterile conditions and lack a gut microbiota. When the gut microbiota from obese mice is transplanted into germ-free mice, the recipient mice exhibit a significant increase in body fat compared to those receiving the microbiota from lean mice. This suggests that the gut microbiota can transmit obesity-related phenotypes between animals.

Evidence from Human Studies

Human studies have reported significant differences in the gut microbiota composition between obese and lean individuals, with obese individuals generally exhibiting reduced bacterial diversity and alterations in the relative abundance of specific bacterial taxa. Weight loss interventions, such as diet and bariatric surgery, have also been shown to induce changes in the gut microbiota composition, although it remains unclear whether these changes are a cause or consequence of weight loss.

While these associative studies provide indirect evidence for the role of the gut microbiota in obesity, direct evidence from human studies is scarce. Some small-scale studies have investigated the effects of fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) from lean donors to individuals with obesity or metabolic disorders, with mixed results. More research is needed to determine the potential therapeutic applications of FMT in obesity.


Adenoviruses are a group of viruses known to cause a wide range of infections, including respiratory, gastrointestinal, and ocular infections. Over the past few decades, several adenoviruses have been implicated in the development of obesity, most notably adenovirus-36 (Ad-36).

Mechanisms of Action

Ad-36 is thought to contribute to obesity through several mechanisms:

Increased Adipogenesis:

Ad-36 has been shown to promote the differentiation of preadipocytes into mature adipocytes, increasing the number of fat cells and leading to an increased capacity for fat storage.


Ad-36 has been found to enhance the expression of genes involved in lipid metabolism, leading to increased lipid accumulation in adipocytes.

Insulin Sensitivity:

Some studies have reported that Ad-36 infection improves insulin sensitivity, which may paradoxically contribute to weight gain by promoting glucose uptake and storage in adipose tissue.

Evidence from Animal Studies

Several animal studies have provided direct evidence for the role of adenoviruses in obesity. Infection with Ad-36 has been shown to cause significant weight gain and increased body fat in various animal models, including mice, rats, and chickens.

Evidence from Human Studies

The evidence linking adenoviruses to obesity in humans is primarily based on seroprevalence studies, which have reported a higher prevalence of Ad-36 antibodies in obese individuals compared to lean individuals. Some longitudinal studies have also suggested that Ad-36 seropositivity is associated with an increased risk of weight gain over time. However, these associative studies cannot establish a causal relationship between Ad-36 infection and obesity, and more research is needed to determine the potential role of adenoviruses in human obesity.

Other Infectious Agents

In addition to the gut microbiota and adenoviruses, other infectious agents have been proposed to contribute to obesity, including:


Certain bacterial infections, such as Helicobacter pylori and Chlamydia pneumoniae, have been linked to obesity in some studies. However, the evidence is limited and inconsistent, and further research is needed to clarify these relationships.


Other viruses, such as hepatitis C virus (HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), have been associated with obesity and metabolic disorders, although the mechanisms are not well understood and may be indirect, such as through alterations in immune function or the side effects of antiviral medications.


Some parasites, such as Toxoplasma gondii, have been proposed to influence obesity by modulating host metabolism and behavior. However, the evidence is scarce and largely speculative.

In conclusion, there is growing evidence to suggest that obesity may have an infectious component, with research implicating the gut microbiota, adenoviruses, and other infectious agents in the development of obesity. While animal studies have provided direct evidence for the role of these microbes in obesity, human studies are primarily associative and cannot establish causality. More research is needed to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the infectious hypothesis of obesity and to explore potential therapeutic interventions targeting the gut microbiota and other infectious agents.

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