White, Brown, Beige/Brite: Different Adipose Cells for Different Functions?

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Abstract

Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is a major site of nonshivering thermogenesis in mammals. Rodent studies indicated that BAT thermogenic activity may protect against obesity. Recent findings using novel radiodiagnosis procedures revealed unanticipated high activity of BAT in adult humans. Moreover, complex processes of cell differentiation leading to the appearance of active brown adipocytes have been recently identified. The brown adipocytes clustered in defined anatomical BAT depots of rodents arise from mesenchymal precursor cells common to the myogenic cell lineage. They are being called “classical” or “developmentally programmed” brown adipocytes. However, brown adipocytes may appear after thermogenic stimuli at anatomical sites corresponding to white adipose tissue (WAT). This process is called the “browning” of WAT. The brown adipocytes appearing in WAT derive from precursor cells different from those in classical BAT and are closer to the white adipocyte cell lineage. The brown adipocytes appearing in WAT are often called “inducible, beige, or brite.” The appearance of these inducible brown adipocytes in WAT may also involve transdifferentiation processes of white-to-brown adipose cells. There is no evidence that the ultimate thermogenic function of the beige/brite adipocytes differs from that of classical brown adipocytes, although some genetic data in rodents suggest a relevant role of the browning process in protection against obesity. Although the activation of classical BAT and the browning process share common mechanisms of induction (eg, noradrenergic-mediated induction by cold), multiple novel adrenergic-independent endocrine factors that activate BAT and the browning of WAT have been identified recently. In adult humans, BAT is mainly composed of beige/brite adipocytes, although recent data indicate the persistence of classical BAT at some anatomical sites. Understanding the biological processes controlling brown adipocyte activity and differentiation could help the design of BAT-focused strategies to increase energy expenditure and fight against obesity.

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