Genetic Determinants of Childhood Obesity

Mol Diagn Ther. 2020 Dec;24(6):653-663. doi: 10.1007/s40291-020-00496-1. Epub 2020 Oct 1.


Obesity represents a major health burden to both developed and developing countries. Furthermore, the incidence of obesity is increasing in children. Obesity contributes substantially to mortality in the United States by increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular-related diseases, and other comorbidities. Despite environmental changes over past decades, including increases in high-calorie foods and sedentary lifestyles, there is very clear evidence of a genetic predisposition to obesity risk. Childhood obesity cases can be categorized in one of two ways: syndromic or non-syndromic. Syndromic obesity includes disorders such as Prader-Willi syndrome, Bardet-Biedl syndrome, and Alström syndrome. Non-syndromic cases of obesity can be further separated into rarer instances of monogenic obesity and much more common forms of polygenic obesity. The advent of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and next-generation sequencing has driven significant advances in our understanding of the genetic contribution to childhood obesity. Many rare and common genetic variants have been shown to contribute to the heritability in obesity, although the molecular mechanisms underlying most of these variants remain unclear. An important caveat of GWAS efforts is that they do not strictly represent gene target discoveries, rather simply the uncovering of robust genetic signals. One clear example of this is with progress in understanding the key obesity signal harbored within an intronic region of the FTO gene. It has been shown that the non-coding region in which the variant actually resides in fact influences the expression of genes distal to FTO instead, specifically IRX3 and IRX5. Such discoveries suggest that associated non-coding variants can be embedded within or next to one gene, but commonly influence the expression of other, more distal effector genes. Advances in genetics and genomics are therefore contributing to a deeper understanding of childhood obesity, allowing for development of clinical tools and therapeutic agents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Genetic Variation
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Multifactorial Inheritance / genetics
  • Pediatric Obesity / genetics*
  • Pediatric Obesity / therapy
  • Risk Factors