ULK1 (unc-51 like kinase 1) is a serine/threonine protein kinase that plays a key role in regulating the induction of autophagy. Recent studies using autophagy-defective mouse models, such as atg5- or atg7-deficient mice, revealed an important function of autophagy in adipocyte differentiation. Suppression of adipogenesis in autophagy-defective conditions has made it difficult to study the roles of autophagy in metabolism of differentiated adipocytes. In this study, we established autophagy defective-differentiated 3T3-L1 adipocytes, and investigated the roles of Ulk1 and its close homolog Ulk2 in lipid and glucose metabolism using the established adipocytes. Through knockdown approaches, we determined that Ulk1 and Ulk2 are important for basal and MTORC1 inhibition-induced autophagy, basal lipolysis, and mitochondrial respiration. However, unlike other autophagy genes (Atg5, Atg13, Rb1cc1/Fip200, and Becn1) Ulk1 was dispensable for adipogenesis without affecting the expression of CCAAT/enhancer binding protein ? (CEBPA) and peroxisome proliferation-activated receptor gamma (PPARG). Ulk1 knockdown reduced fatty acid oxidation and enhanced fatty acid uptake, the metabolic changes that could contribute to adipogenesis, whereas Ulk2 knockdown had opposing effects. We also found that the expression levels of insulin receptor (INSR), insulin receptor substrate 1 (IRS1), and glucose transporter 4 (SLC2A4/GLUT4) were increased in Ulk1-silenced adipocytes, which was accompanied by upregulation of insulin-stimulated glucose uptake. These results suggest that ULK1, albeit its important autophagic role, regulates lipid metabolism and glucose uptake in adipocytes distinctly from other autophagy proteins.
Keywords: ULK1; ULK2; adipocytes; adipogenesis; lipid metabolism; mTORC1.