Phytanic acid is a derivative of the phytol side-chain of chlorophyll. It appears in humans following the ingestion of fat-containing foods and is present in human blood at a low micromolar concentration. It may activate retinoid X receptors (RXR) or peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR) alpha in vitro. Phytanic acid induced the adipocyte differentiation of 3T3-L1 cells in culture as assessed by accumulation of lipid droplets and induction of the aP2 mRNA marker. This effect was mimicked by a synthetic activator of RXR but not by a PPARalpha agonist or by palmitic acid. In human pre-adipocytes in primary culture, phytanic acid also induced adipocyte differentiation. These findings indicate that phytanic acid may act as a natural rexinoid in adipose cells and suggest a potential use in the treatment of human type 2 diabetes and obesity.