(CNN) — It’s a place of terraced lemon groves, a paradoxically warm mountain breeze, and a powerful fat-burning gene carried by a few lucky residents.
A quaint fishing village on the shores of Lake Garda in northern Lombardy, Italy, Limone sul Garda is an unusual tourist destination of just under 1,000 people.
It’s the northernmost place in the world where lemons are naturally grown and has an exceptionally mild climate considering it’s at the foot of the Alps.
Perhaps this mix of factors has led the village to claim a secret “elixir” for healthy, long life.
Many locals are apparently gifted with great digestive abilities, allowing them to stuff themselves with cream-filled cakes and greasy cold cuts without worrying about waist distension or heart problems.
These residents have what’s called the “Limone gene,” which contains a special protein that breaks down lipids and keeps the blood fluid.
The “superhuman” Segal family that carry the gene.
For 40 years, the people of Limone sul Garda have been under scientific observation, with gene-carrying villagers being tested as laboratory rats.
Half of the 1,000 inhabitants were born and raised in Limone; and of those 500, 60 have the gene.
“The gene runs in my family,” says shop owner Gianni Segala, who jokes that the villagers are being used as “blood bags” for scientists.
“My brothers and I, my mother – who is 96 years old and still very bright – and all my children wear it.
“Since the 1980s we’ve been giving away our blood for recurring tests, we’ve almost bled dry,” he adds wryly.
He remembers the first time doctors made him swallow a sugary dose of whipped cream every two hours to monitor his blood.
“They took blood from me after every bite, it was so sweet and greasy that I felt nauseous, but even though I ate a lot, my blood immediately destroyed the fats without assimilating them. By nightfall I almost passed out [due to blood loss]he says.
Though people like Segala may never have to worry about blocked veins and blood clots, he says he leads a normal life and is “not Superman.”
Cesare Sirtori, a professor of clinical pharmacology at the Università degli Studi di Milano, leads the team that first identified what Limone locals call the “elixir” protein and dubbed it A-1 Milano. He says the people of Limone have exceptionally low levels of HDL cholesterol (in the range of 7-15 when it normally should be 40-60), which appears to be the result of a genetic mutation within the protein carrier.
“Low HDL cholesterol – because it’s classified as ‘good’ cholesterol – is bad for you and leads to heart problems such as possible stroke, but for these locals it has a reverse positive effect,” he says.
“And while 99% of protein genetic mutations cause disease and pathology, this one found the lack of vascular disease in carriers.” Sirtori is now studying the lemon gene to see how it might help fight atherosclerosis.
He discovered that lime is a dominant gene found in the DNA of five-year-olds, adolescents and the elderly alike.
“I can eat whatever I want”
Limone is a small fishing village on Lake Garda.
Jorg Greuel/Stone RF/Getty Images
The gene was first identified in the blood of a Limone train driver, an ancestor of Segal, who was involved in an accident in Milan (hence the protein name A-1 Milano) and taken to the hospital. The doctors treating him were amazed by his amazing blood results and launched a massive screening campaign in the village.
“I was just a kid when my blood was first tested, and doctors come regularly to monitor how our genes are behaving,” says Giuliano Segala, Gianni’s son.
“The fact that I carry [the gene] gives me a kind of life insurance – I feel more protected healthwise and confident that I won’t have clogged arteries or die of a heart attack when I get old.
Though he sometimes feels like a guinea pig, the slim and toned Giuliano admits he enjoys greasy cured meats like mortadella, salami and even lard – just like his grandmother, who takes care of herself and cooks for the whole family. The younger Segalas inherited the gene from her.
“I never have a stomach ache and I eat whatever I feel like. I love it cotlette (breaded and fried veal cutlets), fried dishes, salami and I also like to drink. I sleep like a baby,” says Giuliano. But just because he’s a carrier of this great gene doesn’t mean he always overeats. He also exercises regularly and hikes to mountain tops with his father to enjoy the spectacular views of nearby Lake Guard.
Sirtori is still hoping to analyze what happens when two carriers conceive a child. Previously, it was either the father or mother of a carrier who passed on the gene.
A powerful mix of factors
Limone’s lush location has attracted tourists for centuries.
Sirtori says this genetic mutation and the health benefits it brings are unique to Limone — and not even found in the surrounding villages. However, he is not interested in why this is so.
But others have. Antonio Girardi, a local hotelier who traced the entire lineage of lemon gene transmission back to the 18th century, believes the environment, climate and natural produce play a key role.
“It can be this warm climate all year round — we never have snow or ice, which is why lemons have been growing here in this northern area for centuries,” he says.
“Or maybe it’s because of the exceptional extra virgin olive oil we’re all weaned to and the fresh sea fish we eat.”
Since the Renaissance, wealthy families have flocked to the Limone coast for vacations, breathing in the sweet, citrus-scented alpine air and benefiting from the climate.
Girardi keeps a phone book with the contacts of all gene carriers aged 60 and over. The other residents are divided between those born in Limone and those from neighboring towns or abroad, lured by the paradisiacal setting and the sleepy atmosphere of Limone’s maze of cobbled streets and white corridors and dwellings.
In the past, the villagers were either fishermen or mountain lumberjacks who transported logs on donkeys to sell to the ships in the port. Today they all work in the tourism sector, which brings in the big money.
Families stroll along the picturesque harbor and tourists visit the Fisheries Museum. The lazy beaches attract sunbathers and amateur sailors in the summer, while hikers explore the rugged high cliffs that tower over the lake.
“These mountains act as natural shields, protecting us from cold winds, catching the sun and keeping temperatures consistently warm,” says Girardi.
“We have to thank this very pleasant, exceptional microclimate that has gifted our people with such a natural elixir.”