Unconjugated p-cresol activates macrophage macropinocytosis leading to increased LDL uptake

JCI Insight. 2021 Jun 8;6(11):e144410. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.144410.


Patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD) and end-stage renal disease suffer from increased cardiovascular events and cardiac mortality. Prior studies have demonstrated that a portion of this enhanced risk can be attributed to the accumulation of microbiota-derived toxic metabolites, with most studies focusing on the sulfonated form of p-cresol (PCS). However, unconjugated p-cresol (uPC) itself was never assessed due to rapid and extensive first-pass metabolism that results in negligible serum concentrations of uPC. These reports thus failed to consider the host exposure to uPC prior to hepatic metabolism. In the current study, not only did we measure the effect of altering the intestinal microbiota on lipid accumulation in coronary arteries, but we also examined macrophage lipid uptake and handling pathways in response to uPC. We found that atherosclerosis-prone mice fed a high-fat diet exhibited significantly higher coronary artery lipid deposits upon receiving fecal material from CKD mice. Furthermore, treatment with uPC increased total cholesterol, triglycerides, and hepatic and aortic fatty deposits in non-CKD mice. Studies employing an in vitro macrophage model demonstrated that uPC exposure increased apoptosis whereas PCS did not. Additionally, uPC exhibited higher potency than PCS to stimulate LDL uptake and only uPC induced endocytosis- and pinocytosis-related genes. Pharmacological inhibition of varying cholesterol influx and efflux systems indicated that uPC increased macrophage LDL uptake by activating macropinocytosis. Overall, these findings indicate that uPC itself had a distinct effect on macrophage biology that might have contributed to increased cardiovascular risk in patients with CKD.

Keywords: Apoptosis; Atherosclerosis; Cardiology; Cell Biology; Macrophages.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aorta / drug effects
  • Aorta / metabolism*
  • Aorta / pathology
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Cholesterol, LDL / drug effects
  • Cholesterol, LDL / metabolism*
  • Coronary Artery Disease / metabolism*
  • Coronary Artery Disease / pathology
  • Coronary Vessels / drug effects
  • Coronary Vessels / metabolism
  • Coronary Vessels / pathology
  • Cresols / metabolism*
  • Cresols / pharmacology
  • Diet, High-Fat
  • Fecal Microbiota Transplantation
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome*
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / metabolism
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / microbiology
  • Liver / drug effects
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Liver / pathology
  • Macrophages / drug effects
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Pinocytosis / drug effects
  • Pinocytosis / physiology*
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic / metabolism*
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic / microbiology
  • Triglycerides / metabolism


  • Cholesterol, LDL
  • Cresols
  • Triglycerides
  • 4-cresol
  • Cholesterol