Scientists have identified a molecular pathway that controls the conversion of unhealthy white fat into energy-burning beige fat.
Researchers led by the School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, also found that a protein, Grb10, serves as the on-off switch for mTORC1 signalling and the "beigeing" of fat.
Grb10 is stimulated by cold stress, which causes the body to burn energy, researchers said.
"We know that if we want to keep our body lean, we have to get rid of extra nutrients in the body, which means burning more energy," said senior author Feng Liu, professor of pharmacology at the UT Health Science Center and director of the Metabolic Syndrome Research Center at Xiangya Second Hospital, Central South University, in Changsha, China.
"Understanding how beigeing is controlled is so very important because if we can improve energy expenditure, we can reduce obesity," Liu said.
Adipose (fat) tissues, which include white adipose tissue and brown adipose tissue, are important regulators of metabolism.
Having too much white adipose tissue and not burning it off through exercise or other energy expenditure is associated with obesity and metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
"Normally when we eat something, we store it in white fat. For the extra food we eat, it is better to release it, not store it," said co-author Lily Dong, professor of cellular and structural biology at the UT Health Science Center.
"So finding a way to turn the white fat into beige and burn the energy that normally we store would have high therapeutic potential for the treatment of obesity and its related diseases. Dr Liu has identified the pathway to do this," Dong said.
The mTORC1 pathway is also involved in ageing, cardiovascular disease and cancer, so identifying the regulator of this pathway, Grb10, should be very informative for researching other fields, Liu said.
The study is published in the journal Cell Metabolism.