Meet the adipocyte or fat cell, the first in an occasional series of #excyting cell types. Each cell, marked by the blue nucleus, is loaded with fat droplets stained in green.
▶ Why we need fat: Adipocytes have three important jobs: they store energy in the form of fat, they secrete hormones and they respond to insulin to meet the immediate energy needs of our bodies. Obese people who carry out these three functions are metabolically healthy and actually have 38% lower mortality risk. If fat is stored elsewhere, it leads to metabolic disease.
▶ Good fat, bad fat, white fat, brown fat: Not all fat cells are equal. While white fat stores energy, brown fat burns energy to produce heat. Babies and hibernating animals use brown fat to keep warm. The brown color comes from being packed with iron-rich mitochondria. In brown fat, these powerhouses are “uncoupled”: they use energy from fat to pump protons across their membrane but the protons run backwards in a wasteful exercise in futility that generates heat.
▶ Fat is plastic: white fat cells can convert to brown fat by a process induced by cold temperatures. This is a good thing: animals with more brown fat are more resistant to diabetes and obesity.
▶ Fat cells are constant: It is generally believed that the number of fat cells is nearly constant, beyond childhood. Rather, it is the size of the cell that changes. When mature, an adipocyte may be 10 or 20 times its original size.
Image: 3T3-L1 derived adipocytes stained for lipid droplets (green) and DNA (blue). Finalist, GE Healthcare cell imaging competition, 2012 ▶ http://goo.gl/hkzBE Inset, colored scanning electron micrograph of a fat cell. Most of the adipocyte’s volume is taken up by a large lipid (fat or oil) droplet. Fat accumulation starts with a few small lipid droplets which coalesce to make one large droplet. Magnification: x10,000 when printed at 10 centimetres wide. ▶ http://goo.gl/sZ6hp