White, brown and pink adipocytes: the extraordinary plasticity of the adipose organ

Antonio Giordano, Arianna Smorlesi, Andrea Frontini, Giorgio Barbatelli, Saverio Cinti
European Journal of Endocrinology 2014, 170 (5): R159-71
In mammals, adipocytes are lipid-laden cells making up the parenchyma of the multi-depot adipose organ. White adipocytes store lipids for release as free fatty acids during fasting periods; brown adipocytes burn glucose and lipids to maintain thermal homeostasis. A third type of adipocyte, the pink adipocyte, has recently been characterised in mouse subcutaneous fat depots during pregnancy and lactation. Pink adipocytes are mammary gland alveolar epithelial cells whose role is to produce and secrete milk. Emerging evidence suggests that they derive from the transdifferentiation of subcutaneous white adipocytes. The functional response of the adipose organ to a range of metabolic and environmental challenges highlights its extraordinary plasticity. Cold exposure induces an increase in the 'brown' component of the organ to meet the increased thermal demand; in states of positive energy balance, the 'white' component expands to store excess nutrients; finally, the 'pink' component develops in subcutaneous depots during pregnancy to ensure litter feeding. At the cell level, plasticity is provided not only by stem cell proliferation and differentiation but also, distinctively, by direct transdifferentiation of fully differentiated adipocytes by the stimuli that induce genetic expression reprogramming and through it a change in phenotype and, consequently function. A greater understanding of adipocyte transdifferentiation mechanisms would have the potential to shed light on their biology as well as inspire novel therapeutic strategies against metabolic syndrome (browning) and breast cancer (pinking).

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