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fat cells

Saving Fat for Lean Times

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Credit: Rupali Ugrankar, Henne Lab, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas

Humans and all multi-celled organisms, or metazoans, have evolved through millennia into a variety of competing shapes, sizes, and survival strategies. But all metazoans still share lots of intriguing cell biology, including the ability to store excess calories as fat. In fact, many researchers now consider fat-storing cells to be “nutrient sinks,” or good places for the body to stash excess sugars and lipids. Not only can these provide energy needed to survive a future famine, this is a good way to sequester extra molecules that could prove toxic to cells and organs.

Here’s something to think about the next time you skip a meal. Fat-storing cells organize their fat reserves spatially, grouping them into specific pools of lipid types, in order to generate needed energy when food is scarce.

That’s the story behind this striking image taken in a larval fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). The image captures fat-storing adipocytes in an organ called a fat body, where a larval fruit fly stores extra nutrients. It’s like the fat tissue in mammals. You can see both large and small lipid droplets (magenta) inside polygon-shaped fat cells, or adipocytes, lined by their plasma membranes (green). But notice that the small lipid droplets are more visibly lined by green, as only these are destined to be saved for later and exported when needed into the fly’s bloodstream.

Working in Mike Henne’s lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, research associate Rupali Ugrankar discovered how this clever fat-management system works in Drosophila [1]. After either feeding flies high-or-extremely low-calorie diets, Ugrankar used a combination of high-resolution fluorescence confocal microscopy and thin-section transmission electron microscopy to provide a three-dimensional view of adipocytes and their lipid droplets inside.

She observed two distinct sizes of lipid droplets and saw that only the small ones clustered at the cell surface membrane. The adipocytes contorted their membrane inward to grab these small droplets and package them into readily exportable energy bundles.

Ugrankar saw that during times of plenty, a protein machine could fill these small membrane-wrapped fat droplets with lots of triacylglycerol, a high-energy, durable form of fat storage. Their ready access at the surface of the adipocyte allows the fly to balance lipid storage locally with energy release into its blood in times of famine.

Ugrankar’s adeptness at the microscope resulted in this beautiful photo, which was earlier featured in the American Society for Cell Biology’s Green Fluorescent Protein Image and Video Contest. But her work and that of many others help to open a vital window into nutrition science and many critical mechanistic questions about the causes of obesity, insulin resistance, hyperglycemia, and even reduced lifespan.

Such basic research will provide the basis for better therapies to correct these nutrition-related health problems. But the value of basic science must not be forgotten—some of the most important leads could come from a tiny insect in its larval state that shares many aspects of mammalian metabolism.


[1] Drosophila Snazarus regulates a lipid droplet population at plasma membrane-droplet contacts in adipocytes. Ugrankar R, Bowerman J, Hariri H, Chandra M, et al. Dev Cell. 2019 Sep 9;50(5):557-572.e5.


The Interactive Fly (Society for Developmental Biology, Rockville, MD)

Henne Lab (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Regenerative Medicine: The Promise and Peril

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Retinal pigment epithelial cells

Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelial cells growing on a nanofiber scaffold (blue).
Credit: Sheldon Miller, Arvydas Maminishkis, Robert Fariss, and Kapil Bharti, National Eye Institute/NIH

Stem cells derived from a person’s own body have the potential to replace tissue damaged by a wide array of diseases. Now, two reports published in the New England Journal of Medicine highlight the promise—and the peril—of this rapidly advancing area of regenerative medicine. Both groups took aim at the same disorder: age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common, progressive form of vision loss. Unfortunately for several patients, the results couldn’t have been more different.

In the first case, researchers in Japan took cells from the skin of a female volunteer with AMD and used them to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in the lab. Those iPSCs were coaxed into differentiating into cells that closely resemble those found near the macula, a tiny area in the center of the eye’s retina that is damaged in AMD. The lab-grown tissue, made of retinal pigment epithelial cells, was then transplanted into one of the woman’s eyes. While there was hope that there might be actual visual improvement, the main goal of this first in human clinical research project was to assess safety. The patient’s vision remained stable in the treated eye, no adverse events occurred, and the transplanted cells remained viable for more than a year.

Exciting stuff, but, as the second report shows, it is imperative that all human tests of regenerative approaches be designed and carried out with the utmost care and scientific rigor. In that instance, three elderly women with AMD each paid $5,000 to a Florida clinic to be injected in both eyes with a slurry of cells, including stem cells isolated from their own abdominal fat. The sad result? All of the women suffered severe and irreversible vision loss that left them legally or, in one case, completely blind.

Genetic Studies Yield New Insights into Obesity

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Silhouettes of peopleToday, we hear a great deal about which foods to eat and which to avoid to maintain a healthy body. Though we know that one of the strongest contributors to body weight is heredity, there has been less specific information available about the genetics underlying obesity. But research in this area is progressing at a phenomenal pace, and new genomic discoveries are helping to bring into better focus how our bodies store fat and how the complex interplay of genetics, diet, behavior, and other factors determine whether we can readily maintain a healthy body weight, or whether it takes a lot of work to do so.

Two papers in Nature provide lots of fresh clues into the genetic factors involved in predisposing to obesity. Researchers in the international Genetic Investigation of ANthropometric Traits (GIANT) Consortium, more than 500 strong and  including some of the members of my own NIH research lab (including me), examined the genomes of more than half a million people to look for genes and regions of chromosomes that play a role in body fat distribution and obesity. They turned up over 140 genetic locations that, like low-intensity voices in a choir of many, contribute to these traits. Further analyses of the specific genes located in these regions suggest the possibility that the programming behind how fat cells form may influence their distribution, a discovery that could lead to exploitable findings down the road.

Snapshots of Life: Fat (Tissue) Is Beautiful

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Fat cells in 3D

Caption: Fat cells (red) surrounded by blood vessels (green) that supply them with nutrients.
Credit: Daniela Malide, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; NIH

With all of today’s sophisticated microscopes, you’d think it would be simple to take high-magnification photos of fat—but it’s not. Fat tissue often leaks slippery contents, namely lipids, when it’s thinly sliced for viewing under a microscope. And even when a sample is prepared without leakage, there’s another hurdle: the viscous droplets of lipid contained in the fat cells block light from passing through.

So, it’s good news that one of NIH’s intramural scientists here in Bethesda, MD, has come up with a way to produce high-resolution, 3-D images of fat cells like the one you see above. Not only are these images aesthetically appealing, but they’ll be valuable to efforts to expand our understanding of this essential and much-maligned tissue.