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Colour key to burning fat

Adverts appealing to our senses of taste and smell were omnipresent over the holiday season. But as night follows day, the new year spotlight is now on promotions and campaigns championing healthy eating and weight loss.

What does the current scientific research on obesity tell us though? One interesting – and ongoing – collaborative study between teams from the Technical University of Munich and Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is exploring the ways different colours of fat impact weight and metabolic disorders.

Brown – white – beige

Fat is a bit like traffic lights, there are three colours: brown – white – beige; and just as progress on the road can stall or accelerate dependant on the dominant colour, so is your wellbeing dictated by the fluctuating prominence of the three fat cell colours. While white fat cells act like a storage system, the other two convert nutritious energy into heat, a process known as non-shivering thermogenesis. Some research has shown that those with more thermogenic fat cells are less likely to become obese or have a metabolic disorder. So finding out the reasons why people have varying levels of brown and beige fat cells could potentially unlock new treatment options.

“We want to understand how thermogenic fat cells develop; so how beige fat cells grow inside white fat tissue,” explained Professor Martin Klingenspor, Chair of Molecular Nutritional Science at the TUM Else Kröner-Fresenius Center. By “browning” the white fat tissue, an energy-storing organ could be partially transformed into an energy-dissipating organ, thereby improving metabolic health.”

Discovering how beige fat cells develop in mice has taken the researcher team a step closer to investigating its development in humans.

“By systematically comparing fat cells among these different strains of mice, we were able to discover which genes or regulators might explain the variation in beige cell differentiation – in other words, the growth of beige fat cells,” said Klingenspor. “Now we have gathered a unique insight into the genetic architecture driving the molecular mechanisms of beige fat cell development. What we managed to confirm in a cell culture is now to be examined ‘in vivo’ – so inside a living organism – as our next step.”

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Iain Robertson
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