The Genetics of Fat

Scottish scientists have discovered genes which identify cells which
burn up calories instead of storing them as fat, and might be used to
develop more of these helpful cells.

There are two types of fat cell, brown cells, which we have less of but
which instead of storing fat are actually highly efficient at ‘burning’
calories helping to promote weight loss, and the ordinary white,
fat-storing cells. Once it was thought that only children possessed
brown fat cells, but it has recently been proved that adults do retain

It is widely believed that if these calorie burning fat cells could be
activated, it would help people lose weight, but the problem has been in
identifying them for study, as until now this was very difficult as
there were few genes known to reliably act as markers for these two very
different fat cells.

Now Professor James Timmons and Professor Barbara Cannon of the School
of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, working with
colleagues at Stockholm University, have used a new method, gene-chip
arrays, to distinguish the calorie burning fat cells from the calorie
storage fat cells that make us gain weight.

In a study to be published in the prestigious Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences (USA), the researchers describe how the
brown fat cells actually share common ancestors with the cells in our
muscles, which also specialise in burning calories. They realised that
some of the genes shared in common between brown fat and muscle may
explain how to control the calorie burning activity. This has for the
first time opened up the possibility of accurately studying the
development of these two different fat cells and, in the future,
targeting some of the genetic differences between the two cell types may
allow us to switch on the calorie burning behaviour to help successful
weight loss. Ongoing research will use compounds that control the adult
stem cell development to see if it is possible ‘switch on’ this
beneficial calorie burning activity in our fat tissue.

Professor Timmons said, “This discovery in itself doesn’t mean we can
cure obesity, but by identifying areas of brown fat in adults it will
open the way for others to work on how to turn on the brown,
calorie-burning fat cells and turn-off the cells that just store fat.

“At Heriot-Watt we emphasise a multi-disciplinary approach to research,
where biologists and chemists work closely together to turn interesting
theories into practical applications, and this will be important in
building on the benefits of this breakthrough.

“It’s important to emphasise, however, that any future treatments will
always work best in combination with good nutrition and plenty of

For further information please contact:
Caroline Dempster
Press Officer
Heriot-Watt University
Tel: 0131 451 3443

Issued 6 March ’07

Contact: Caroline Dempster
Phone: 0131 451 3443