Background: A functional population of adipocyte precursors, termed adipose-derived stromal/stem cells (ASCs), is crucial for proper adipose tissue (AT) expansion, lipid handling, and prevention of lipotoxicity in response to chronic positive energy balance. We previously showed that obese human subjects contain a dysfunctional pool of ASCs. Elucidation of the mechanisms underlying abnormal ASC function might lead to therapeutic interventions for prevention of lipotoxicity by improving the adipogenic capacity of ASCs.
Methods: Using epigenome-wide association studies, we explored the impact of obesity on the methylation signature of human ASCs and their differentiated counterparts. Mitochondrial phenotyping of lean and obese ASCs was performed. TBX15 loss- and gain-of-function experiments were carried out and western blotting and electron microscopy studies of mitochondria were performed in white AT biopsies from lean and obese individuals.
Results: We found that DNA methylation in adipocyte precursors is significantly modified by the obese environment, and adipogenesis, inflammation, and immunosuppression were the most affected pathways. Also, we identified TBX15 as one of the most differentially hypomethylated genes in obese ASCs, and genetic experiments revealed that TBX15 is a regulator of mitochondrial mass in obese adipocytes. Accordingly, morphological analysis of AT from obese subjects showed an alteration of the mitochondrial network, with changes in mitochondrial shape and number.
Conclusions: We identified a DNA methylation signature in adipocyte precursors associated with obesity, which has a significant impact on the metabolic phenotype of mature adipocytes.