Cardiovascular Medicine, Urology and Nephrology

Newly discovered control mechanism for the “small heat plants”

Dr. Wenfei Sun

ETH Zürich

Dr. Hua Dong

ETH Zürich

Adipose tissue is an important regulator of the body’s metabolism, which is also revealed in the fact that dysfunctional adipose tissue can cause a variety of metabolic complications in obesity. 

In contrast to white adipose tissue, which stores energy, activated brown adipose tissue burns the energy, releasing heat in the process. Brown fat cells, for example, located under the collar bone in the neck or along the spine, help to keep the body warm when it is cold. The research team led by Wenfei Sun and Hua Dong wanted to find out more about these “small heat plants”.  

However, they first needed to develop a new technology with the aid of single nucleus RNA sequencing (snRNA-seq) to actually gain a deeper insight into the world of fat cells. This method allowed them to discover a rare sub-type of fat cells in mice. These special adipocytes are more abundant in higher temperatures and produce acetate with a distinct set of genes, which acts as a signal to regulate the capacity for heat generation in directly adjacent brown fat cells. In other words: The “control adipocytes” prevent the brown fat cells from burning energy. And a further result was obtained: Humans have larger stores of regulatory adipocytes in their bodies than, for example, mice. The two researchers regard this as a possible explanation for why humans have a significantly lower capacity to produce body warmth than rodents.

snRNA-seq reveals a subpopulation of adipocytes that regulates thermogenesis. Wenfei Sun, Hua Dong, Miroslav Balaz, Michal Slyper, Eugene Drokhlyansky, Georgia Colleluori, Antonio Giordano, Zuzana Kovanicova, Patrik Stefanicka, Lucia Balazova, Lianggong Ding, Anna Sofie Husted, Gottfried Rudofsky, Jozef Ukropec, Saverio Cinti, Thue W Schwartz, Aviv Regev, Christian Wolfrum. 
Nature. (2020) Nov; 587(7832): 98-102. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2856-x.