3D analysis of the whole subcutaneous adipose tissue reveals a complex spatial network of interconnected lobules with heterogeneous browning ability

Sci Rep. 2019 Apr 30;9(1):6684. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-43130-9.


Adipose tissue, as the main energy storage organ and through its endocrine activity, is interconnected with all physiological functions. It plays a fundamental role in energy homeostasis and in the development of metabolic disorders. Up to now, this tissue has been analysed as a pool of different cell types with very little attention paid to the organization and putative partitioning of cells. Considering the absence of a complete picture of the intimate architecture of this large soft tissue, we developed a method that combines tissue clearing, acquisition of autofluorescence or lectin signals by confocal microscopy, segmentation procedures based on contrast enhancement, and a new semi-automatic image analysis process, allowing accurate and quantitative characterization of the whole 3D fat pad organization. This approach revealed the unexpected anatomic complexity of the murine subcutaneous fat pad. Although the classical picture of adipose tissue corresponds to a superposition of simple and small ellipsoidal lobules of adipose cells separated by mesenchymal spans, our results show that segmented lobules display complex 3D poly-lobular shapes. Despite differences in shape and size, the number of these poly-lobular subunits is similar from one fat pad to another. Finally, investigation of the relationships of these subunits between each other revealed a never-described organization in two clusters with distinct molecular signatures and specific vascular and sympathetic nerve densities correlating with different browning abilities. This innovative procedure reveals that subcutaneous adipose tissue exhibits a subtle functional heterogeneity with partitioned areas, and opens new perspectives towards understanding its functioning and plasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipocytes / metabolism
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted* / methods
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional* / methods
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Subcutaneous Fat / cytology*
  • Subcutaneous Fat / diagnostic imaging*
  • Subcutaneous Fat / metabolism