Between brown and white: novel aspects of adipocyte differentiation

Ann Med. 2011 Mar;43(2):104-15. doi: 10.3109/07853890.2010.535557. Epub 2011 Jan 24.


In all mammals including humans, most white and brown adipocytes are found together in visceral and subcutaneous depots (adipose organ) despite the well known difference in their function, respectively of storing energy and producing heat. A growing body of evidence suggests that the reason for such anatomical arrangement is their plasticity, which under appropriate stimulation allows direct conversion of one cell type into the other. In conditions of chronic cold exposure white-to-brown conversion meets the need for thermogenesis, whereas an obesogenic diet induces brown-to-white conversion to meet the need for storing energy. White-to-brown transdifferentiation is of medical interest, because the brown phenotype of the adipose organ is associated to obesity resistance, and drugs inducing this phenotype curb murine obesity and related disorders. Type 2 diabetes is the most common disorder associated to visceral obesity. Macrophages infiltrating the adipose organ are responsible for the low-grade chronic inflammation related to the removal of dead adipocytes, which leads to insulin resistance and T2 diabetes. Adipocyte death is closely related to their growth up to the critical death size. The critical death size of visceral adipocytes is smaller than that of subcutaneous adipocytes, likely accounting for the greater morbidity related to visceral fat.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adipocytes, Brown / metabolism*
  • Adipocytes, White / metabolism*
  • Adipose Tissue, Brown / cytology
  • Adipose Tissue, Brown / metabolism
  • Adipose Tissue, White / cytology
  • Adipose Tissue, White / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Cell Death
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / etiology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Thermogenesis