Neighborhoods to Nucleotides—Advances and Gaps for an Obesity Disparities Systems Epidemiology Model


Purpose of Review

Disparities in prevalence of obesity in the USA continue to increase. Here, we review progress and highlight gaps in understanding disparities in obesity with a focus on the Hispanic/Latino population from a systems epidemiology framework. We review seven domains: environment, behavior, biomarkers, nutrition, microbiome, genomics, and epigenomics/transcriptomics. We focus on recent advances that integrate at least two or more of these domains, and then provide a real-world example of data collection efforts that encompass these domains.

Recent Findings

Research into discrimination-related DNA methylation patterns and how microbiome profiles are related to eating and physical activity behaviors is furthering understanding of why disparities in obesity persist. Environmental and neighborhood level research is uncovering the importance of exposures such as air and noise pollution and systematic or structural racism for obesity and related outcomes through behaviors such as sleep.


Obesity disparities and the biological processes associated with them must be better contextualized within the social, economic, and political environments that contribute to them. One avenue for accomplishing this is by modeling relationships between within-body mechanisms and omics and beyond-body mechanisms and exposures. However, data integration across the various domains and data collection are significant challenges for generating a comprehensive systems model for obesity disparities.

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Fig. 1


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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Funding for this research was provided by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute (R01 CA179977). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. The Nucleotides to Neighborhoods study was a Demonstration Project in Systems Biomedicine supported by a grant from the University of California San Diego Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics and San Diego Center for Systems Biology.

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Correspondence to Marta M. Jankowska.

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Marta M. Jankowska, Kyle Gaulton, Rob Knight, Kevin Patrick, and Dorothy D. Sears each declare no potential conflicts of interest.

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Jankowska, M.M., Gaulton, K., Knight, R. et al. Neighborhoods to Nucleotides—Advances and Gaps for an Obesity Disparities Systems Epidemiology Model. Curr Epidemiol Rep 6, 476–485 (2019).

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  • Health disparities
  • Hispanic/Latino
  • Obesity
  • Systems epidemiology
  • Environmental exposure
  • Data integration