A unifying mathematical model of lipid droplet metabolism reveals key molecular players in the development of hepatic steatosis

FEBS J. 2017 Oct;284(19):3245-3261. doi: 10.1111/febs.14189. Epub 2017 Sep 6.


The liver responds to elevated plasma concentrations of free fatty acids (FFAs) with an enhanced uptake of FFAs and their esterification to triacylglycerol (TAG). On the long term, this may result in massive hepatic TAG accumulation called steatosis hepatitis. In hepatocytes, the poor water-soluble TAG is packed in specialized organelles: Lipid droplets (LDs) serving as transient cellular deposit and lipoproteins (LPs) transporting TAG and cholesterol esters to extra-hepatic tissues. The dynamics of these organelles is controlled by a variety of regulatory surface proteins (RSPs). Assembly and export of VLDLs are mainly regulated by the microsomal transfer protein (MTP) and apoprotein B100. Formation and lipolysis of LDs are regulated by several RSPs. The best studied regulators belong to the PAT (Perilipin/Adipophilin/TIP47) and CIDE families. Knockdown or overexpression of SRPs may significantly affect the total number and size distribution of LDs. Intriguingly, a large cell-to-cell heterogeneity with respect to the number and size of LDs has been found in various cell types including hepatocytes. These findings suggest that the extent of cellular lipid accumulation is determined not only by the imbalance between lipid supply and utilization but also by variations in the expression of RSPs and metabolic enzymes. To better understand the relative regulatory impact of individual processes involved in the cellular TAG turnover, we developed a comprehensive kinetic model encompassing the pathways of the fatty acid and triglyceride metabolism and the main molecular processes governing the dynamics of LDs. The model was parametrized such that a large number of experimental in vitro and in vivo findings are correctly recapitulated. A control analysis of the model revealed that variations in the activity of FFA uptake, diacylglycerol acyltransferase (DGAT) 2, and adipose triglyceride lipase (ATGL) have the strongest influence on the cellular TAG level. We used the model to simulate LD size distributions in human hepatoma cells and hepatocytes exposed to a challenge with FFAs. A random fold change by a factor of about two in the activity of RSPs was sufficient to reproduce the large diversity of droplet size distributions observed in individual cells. Under the premise that the same extent of variability of RSPs holds for the intact organ, our model predicts variations in the TAG content of individual hepatocytes by a factor of about 3-6 depending on the nutritional regime. Taken together, our modeling approach integrates numerous experimental findings on individual processes in the cellular TAG metabolism and LD dynamics metabolism to a consistent state-of-the-art dynamic network model that can be used to study how changes in the external conditions or systemic parameters will affect the TAG content of hepatocytes.

Keywords: PAT proteins; hepatocytes; kinetic model; lipid droplets; steatosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cholesterol Esters / metabolism
  • Diacylglycerol O-Acyltransferase / genetics
  • Diacylglycerol O-Acyltransferase / metabolism
  • Fatty Liver / chemically induced
  • Fatty Liver / genetics
  • Fatty Liver / metabolism*
  • Fatty Liver / pathology
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Hepatocytes / cytology
  • Hepatocytes / drug effects
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Lipase / genetics
  • Lipase / metabolism
  • Lipid Droplets / chemistry
  • Lipid Droplets / metabolism*
  • Lipid Metabolism / drug effects
  • Lipid Metabolism / genetics*
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Oleic Acid / metabolism
  • Oleic Acid / pharmacology
  • Palmitic Acid / metabolism
  • Palmitic Acid / pharmacology
  • Primary Cell Culture
  • Triglycerides / metabolism


  • Cholesterol Esters
  • Triglycerides
  • Oleic Acid
  • Palmitic Acid
  • DGAT2 protein, human
  • Diacylglycerol O-Acyltransferase
  • Lipase
  • PNPLA2 protein, human