Your metabolism is a collection of all the small chemical reactions taking place in your body that work to keep you alive. These reactions are fueled by burning up the calories that exist in all the food you eat. If you eat more calories than you need to power these reactions, the excess food energy will be stored as fat. Each person’s metabolism is different, just like every person is different. Throughout July we’ll be exploring the different ways metabolisms work, and how understanding your own metabolism can help you become healthier. This article was originally published in June of 2015.
Since the 2009 discovery that energy-burning brown fat can be active in adults, research has raced ahead to understand this tissue and exploit it to treat the epidemic of obesity. Active brown fat also may assist in directly easing the burden of diabetes and related metabolic diseases by lowering the levels of glucose and fatty acids in the bloodstream. But progress in studying human brown fat often has been slowed by difficulties in obtaining and studying samples of the human cells that develop into brown fat.
Now, however, researchers at Joslin led by Yu-Hua Tseng, Ph.D., have been able to grow and study these energy-expending cells in culture dishes in the lab.
Fat cells all come from the same stock; they grow into either brown or white fat cells out of things called precursor cells. The Joslin researchers were able to pull these precursor fat cells from four different people and freeze them in that precursor state, allowing them to understand exactly what the genetics of that “before” state looked like.
They then unfroze cells when they desired to study their growth from precursors into brown or white fat, allowing them to identify which genes get turned on to make the precursor turn into brown fat versus white fat. This advancement will help investigators to pick apart the factors that drive the development and activity of each type of cell, potentially leading to the ability to create brown fat out of cells that previously would have become white fat.
“We can take human brown fat precursor cells, grow them in Petri dishes and then culture them to become energy-dissipating cells,” says Dr. Tseng. “This cellular system provides a very important and exciting tool for understanding the biology of human brown fat tissue. It also offers a really nice system for drug screening.” Continue reading –>