L-Carnitine intake and high trimethylamine N-oxide plasma levels correlate with low aortic lesions in ApoE(-/-) transgenic mice expressing CETP

Atherosclerosis. 2016 Jan;244:29-37. doi: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2015.10.108. Epub 2015 Nov 2.


Objective: Dietary l-carnitine can be metabolized by intestinal microbiota to trimethylamine, which is absorbed by the gut and further oxidized to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in the liver. TMAO plasma levels have been associated with atherosclerosis development in ApoE(-/-) mice. To better understand the mechanisms behind this association, we conducted in vitro and in vivo studies looking at the effect of TMAO on different steps of atherosclerotic disease progression.

Methods: J774 mouse macrophage cells were used to evaluate the effect of TMAO on foam cell formation. Male ApoE(-/-) mice transfected with human cholesteryl ester transfer protein (hCETP) were fed l-carnitine and/or methimazole, a flavin monooxygenase 3 (FMO3) inhibitor that prevents the formation of TMAO. Following 12 week treatment, l-carnitine and TMAO plasma levels, aortic lesion development, and lipid profiles were determined.

Results: TMAO at concentrations up to 10-fold the Cmax reported in humans did not affect in vitro foam cell formation. In ApoE(-/-)mice expressing hCETP, high doses of l-carnitine resulted in a significant increase in plasma TMAO levels. Surprisingly, and independently from treatment group, TMAO levels inversely correlated with aortic lesion size in both aortic root and thoracic aorta. High TMAO levels were found to significantly correlate with smaller aortic lesion area. Plasma lipid and lipoprotein levels did not change with treatment nor with TMAO levels, suggesting that the observed effects on lesion area were independent from lipid changes.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that TMAO slows aortic lesion formation in this mouse model and may have a protective effect against atherosclerosis development in humans.

Keywords: Atherosclerosis; Cardiovascular disease; Gut microbiota; TMAO; l-carnitine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apolipoproteins E / genetics
  • Atherosclerosis / blood*
  • Carnitine / pharmacokinetics*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cholesterol Ester Transfer Proteins / biosynthesis*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Disease Progression
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Macrophages / pathology
  • Male
  • Methylamines / blood*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout


  • Apolipoproteins E
  • CETP protein, human
  • Cholesterol Ester Transfer Proteins
  • Methylamines
  • trimethyloxamine
  • Carnitine