It’s a place of terraced lemon groves, a paradoxically warm mountain breeze, and a powerful fat-killing gene carried by a few lucky residents.
Limone sul Garda, a picturesque fishing village set on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, is an unusual destination of barely 1,000 residents.
It is the most northern spot in the entire world where lemons are naturally grown and has an exceptionally mild climate, considering its location at the feet of the Alps.
Perhaps this mix of factors is what has led to the village’s claims of a secret “elixir” to a healthy, long life.
Many locals are apparently blessed with great digestive abilities that allow them to stuff themselves with cream-filled cakes and greasy cold cuts without worrying about expanding waistlines or heart problems.
These residents have what they call the “Limone gene,” which contains a special protein that destroys lipids and keeps blood fluid.
For 40 years, the people of Limone sul Garda have been under scientific observation, with gene-carrying villagers tested as lab rats.
Of the 1,000 residents, half are Limone born and bred; and of those 500, 60 have the gene.
“The gene runs in my family,” says shopkeeper Gianni Segala, who jokes that the villagers are used as “blood bags” for scientists.
“My brothers and I, my mother — who’s 96 and still very bright — and all my children carry it.
“Since the 1980s we’ve been giving away our blood for recurrent tests, we’ve almost been bled out entirely,” he adds wryly.
He recalls the first time the doctors had him swallow a sugary dose of whipped cream every two hours to monitor his bloods.
“They took my blood after each bite, it was so sweet and greasy I felt nauseous, but even though I ate a lot of it my blood instantly destroyed the fats without assimilating them. By nightfall I almost fainted [due to blood loss],” he says.
However, even though people like Segala may never have to fret about clogged veins and blood clots, he says he leads a very normal life and is “no Superman.”
Cesare Sirtori, professor of clinical pharmacology at the Università degli Studi di Milano, leads the team that first identified what Limone locals dub the “elixir” protein, calling it A-1 Milano. He says the people of Limone have exceptionally low HDL cholesterol levels (in a 7-15 range when normally it should be 40-60) which appears to be the result of a genetic mutation within the protein carrier.
“Having low HDL cholesterol — given that it is classed as ‘good’ cholesterol — is bad for you and leads to heart problems such as potential strokes, but in these locals it has an inverse positive effect,” he says.
“And while 99% of protein genetic mutations trigger diseases and pathologies, this one has determined the absence of vascular diseases in carriers.” Sirtori is now studying the Limone gene to see how it could further the fight against atherosclerosis.
In 2000, he and his team lab-synthesized the Limone protein and injected it into rabbits. The animals saw a significant decrease of blood clots in their arteries.
He discovered that in Limone it is a dominant gene, found in the DNA of five-year olds, youths and elderly alike.
‘Free to eat whatever I want’
The gene was first identified in the blood of a Limone train driver, an ancestor of Segala, who had been involved in an accident in Milan (hence the protein name A-1 Milano) and was taken to the hospital. Doctors who cured him were baffled by his astounding blood results, and kickstarted a massive screening campaign in the village.
“I was just a kid when my blood was first tested, and the doctors come regularly to monitor how our gene is behaving,” says Giuliano Segala, Gianni’s son.
“The fact that I carry [the gene] gives me a sort of life insurance — I feel more shielded health-wise and confident I won’t have clogged arteries or die of a heart attack when I grow old.”
Even though he does occasionally feel like a guinea pig, Giuliano, who’s slim and fit, admits to happily indulging in greasy cured meats including mortadella, salami and even lard — just like his grandmother, who looks after herself and cooks for the whole family. The younger Segalas inherited the gene from her.
“I never get stomach ache and I eat whatever I feel like. I love cotolette (breaded and fried veal cutlets), fried foods, salamis, and I also love to drink. I sleep like a baby,” says Giuliano. But just because he’s a carrier of this superb gene doesn’t mean he always over-eats. He also exercises regularly, hiking with his father up mountain peaks to enjoy the spectacular views of nearby Lake Garda.
Sirtori is still hoping to analyze what happens if two carriers conceive a child. So far it’s been either the father or mother of a carrier to pass on the gene.