On the origin of healthy food consumption and physical activity: a consortium of international twin studies

About the supervisors: 

Prof. dr. Maurice Zeegers is professor of Complex Genetics & Epidemiology. He is internationally recognised for his research on twins. He serves as head of Maastricht’s School of Public Health and Primary Care and the department of Complex Genetics. He has published >200 papers and supervised >20 PhD students.

Dr. Evangelia Antoniou is a psychologist and post-doctoral researcher at UM. Her current research focuses on twins’ psychological development, eating behaviour and eating disorders. She is the principal investigator and coordinator of the Twins and Multiple Births Association Heritability Study (TAMBAhs).

About the research group: 

The student will be based within the team Genetic Epidemiology and Twin Research of the department of Complex Genetics at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. This productive team comprises one of the two twin research centres in the Netherlands. Here, she will work with other colleagues and PhD students that are also involved in twin research (e.g. via their projects in the East Flanders Prospective Twin Survey), other consortia (e.g. the BLEND consortium that has also harmonized dietary information) and other nutritional research projects (e.g. clinical trials and cohort studies on dietary supplementation). The student will be working in close collaboration with the department of Social Medicine, which will provide the methodological expertise regarding the assessment and interpretation of physical activity data.

Work field of the proposed project: 
Genetic Epidemiology
Estimated duration: 
4 year
Scientific background: 

The association between modifiable risk factors for most chronic diseases and population’s health are now clear. Numerous studies have reported convincing results, but at the same time a large proportion of the population still does not meet the recommendations for diet and physical activity. One of the reasons for this might be ascribed to genetic factors. Indeed, several twin studies have confirmed this, but the details of these associations are lacking. The knowledge regarding the genes effectively responsible is even scarcer. No genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have been done specifically to analyse the effect on food intake, and only one moderately large GWAS was found on physical activity behaviour.

Main research question, subquestions and aim(s): 

This research aims at increasing our understanding of the relative genetic and environmental influence on healthy food consumption and physical activity by bringing together the world’s data on this topic. 

Research design and methods: 

So far, twelve twin studies from across the world, with a total of 37,177 twin pairs (74,354 individuals) have expressed their willingness to join this pooled analysis, which would be the largest ever conducted analysis on the origins of food consumption and physical activity. The heritability of these phenotypes will be calculated through a variety of variance components models and a pooled GWAS will be performed. Discerning the origin through which healthy behaviour occurs is essential in order to develop effective personalised interventions for lifestyle change and the promotion of population’s health. 

Research activities: 
  • Objective 1: To set up an infrastructure for a large twin study consortium.
  • Objective 2: To harmonize the study data on food frequency intake and physical activity.
  • Objective 3: To disentangle the genetic from the shared and unique environmental influences.
  • Objective 4: To integrate whole-genome analysis data to identify novel pathways.

Expected results: 

The thesis will produce at least 5 academic papers:

  1. Variance Components Analyses (VCA) on dietary food items and food groups
  2. VCA on macronutrient intake, total calorie intake and calorie expenditure
  3. VCA on adherence to dietary patterns
  4. Statistical analyses on physical activity data
  5. Integration of GWAS data 
Competences the applicant needs to have or acquire for the project: 

MSc in relevant field and fluency in english

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