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Chris Morrison, PhD
Photo provided by Pennington Biomedical Research Center

Researchers at Pennington Biomedical Research Center have discovered a new pathway that controls how our bodies respond to a diet that’s low in protein.

This finding could improve treatments for obesity and diabetes.

Data collected by Chris Morrison, PhD and his team of researchers at Pennington Biomedical provides a new explanation for why protein intake profoundly influences metabolism and body weight. They found that in both mice and humans the amount of protein in the diet affects a hormone known as FGF21. If protein consumption is restricted, the body increases production of FGF21. Mice lacking the FGF21 hormone did not change their food intake, metabolism or body weight when placed on a low protein diet, indicating that without FGF21 the mice couldn’t detect dietary protein content.

“This discovery will significantly change the way science views the FGF21 hormone,” said Morrison. “In looking at ways in which dietary protein affects our food intake and metabolism, my team and I discovered a fundamentally new role for this key hormone.”

In lab tests, FGF21 has been shown to reduce body weight and blood glucose levels.  There has been enthusiasm that this hormone may be a part of the next generation of drugs used to treat obesity and diabetes. Yet, scientists were not sure exactly how FGF21 was regulated in the body – until now. Morrison’s work, published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, not only suggests that FGF21 helps the body track protein intake, it also shows that protein intake profoundly influences metabolism and that scientists may be able to use protein specific signals like FGF21 to influence our metabolism in a unique way.

“Our data show that FGF21 may be the first hormone that specifically acts as a signal of dietary protein. Considering that both FGF21 and protein restriction have big effects on metabolism and health, we will use this new information to uncover more steps in this process and hopefully identify new targets for the treatment of obesity and diabetes,” added Morrison.

Obesity and diabetes are among the top chronic diseases in the U.S. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that roughly 40% of Americans are expected to develop Type 2 diabetes at some point during adulthood. Obesity-related medical costs in Louisiana total approximately $1.37 billion annually. Diabetes prevalence in many parts of Louisiana is 50 percent higher than the national average. Research discoveries like this one by Morrison and his colleagues could serve to crack the code on much needed, more effective treatments for these diseases.

Read More: Pennington Biomedical Research Center


The Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of medical discovery as it relates to understanding the triggers of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. It is a campus of Louisiana State University and conducts basic, clinical and population research. The research enterprise at Pennington Biomedical includes approximately 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who comprise a network of 44 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dietitians, and support personnel, and 13 highly specialized core service facilities. Pennington Biomedical’s more than 500 employees perform research activities in state-of-the-art facilities on the 222-acre campus located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

For more information about this article, please contact the Pennington Communications Office by phone (225) 763-2750 or by email.

Research Details

  • Research Center: Pennington Biomedical Research Center
  • Featured NORC Member(s): Chris Morrison, PhD, Associate Professor of Comparative Biology, Animal Metabolism and Behavior Neurosignaling

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