Golden Mitochondria, photograph by Torsten Wittmann

Tracking Obesity into Cellular Mitochondria

Science has come a long way from simplistic assumptions about fat tissue as some sort of fuel depot for the excess calories a person consumes. In fact, adipose tissue is a very active endocrine organ that regulates the use and storage of energy in ways that new research is explaining. At a cellular level, new research in Nature Metabolism identifies a molecular basis for changes in the mitochondria of white adipose tissue that can trigger obesity.

A Key Protein in Metabolic Function

In obesity, it appears that a protein called RalA gets activated. When it does, it causes mitochondria in white adipose tissue to fragment and stop burning energy efficiently. So this discovery might help explain how metabolic function and energy regulation may be altered in people with obesity. Senior author Alan Saltiel offers insight on the importance of these findings:

“In essence, chronic activation of RalA appears to play a critical role in suppressing energy expenditure in obese adipose tissue. By understanding this mechanism, we’re one step closer to developing targeted therapies that could address weight gain and associated metabolic dysfunctions by increasing fat burning.”

Mitochondria and White Adipose Tissue

To gain these insights, Saltiel and his colleagues studied the mitochondria of white fat cells in mice with obesity. Mitochondria play an essential role in energy regulation because these tiny organelles within our cells provide the energy that fuels the activity of our bodies – and keeps us warm. White adipose tissue is important because it stores lipids for energy to fuel the body and it acts as an endocrine organ, helping to regulate energy balance. It is generally more abundant and less active in burning energy than the brown adipose tissue.

More to Learn

This new insight is important because it identifies a key protein that might act almost like a switch in the transition from healthy weight to obesity, says Saltiel. In his research, deleting the gene for RalA served to protect mice from gaining weight with a high fat diet. It prevented the fragmentation of mitochondria that leads to obesity.

Many questions remain, but this research opens the door to a whole range of research to inform the scientific understanding of a metabolic pathway for obesity. It is a pathway that can lead to obesity or can prevent it. We have much to learn.

Click here for the study,  here, here, and here for further reporting on it.

Golden Mitochondria, photograph by Torsten Wittmann, PhD, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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February 15, 2024

One Response to “Tracking Obesity into Cellular Mitochondria”

  1. February 17, 2024 at 5:56 am, jon said:

    Mitocondrias, papel en el tejido graso y la obesidad