The brown adipocyte differentiation pathway in birds: An evolutionary road not taken
© Mezentseva et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2008
Received: 06 March 2008
Accepted: 21 April 2008
Published: 21 April 2008
Thermogenic brown adipose tissue has never been described in birds or other non-mammalian vertebrates. Brown adipocytes in mammals are distinguished from the more common white fat adipocytes by having numerous small lipid droplets rather than a single large one, elevated numbers of mitochondria, and mitochondrial expression of the nuclear gene UCP1, the uncoupler of oxidative phosphorylation responsible for non-shivering thermogenesis.
We have identified in vitro inductive conditions in which mesenchymal cells isolated from the embryonic chicken limb bud differentiate into avian brown adipocyte-like cells (ABALCs) with the morphological and many of the biochemical properties of terminally differentiated brown adipocytes. Avian, and as we show here, lizard species lack the gene for UCP1, although it is present in amphibian and fish species. While ABALCs are therefore not functional brown adipocytes, they are generated by a developmental pathway virtually identical to brown fat differentiation in mammals: both the common adipogenic transcription factor peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-γ (PPARγ), and a coactivator of that factor specific to brown fat differentiation in mammals, PGC1α, are elevated in expression, as are mitochondrial volume and DNA. Furthermore, ABALCs induction resulted in strong transcription from a transfected mouse UCP1 promoter.
These findings strongly suggest that the brown fat differentiation pathway evolved in a common ancestor of birds and mammals and its thermogenicity was lost in the avian lineage, with the degradation of UCP1, after it separated from the mammalian lineage. Since this event occurred no later than the saurian ancestor of birds and lizards, an implication of this is that dinosaurs had neither UCP1 nor canonically thermogenic brown fat.
Most mammalian species have two types of adipose tissue, white and brown fat, both of which contain adipocytes that store lipids for the production of energy. White adipocytes (WAs) generate metabolically useful energy, while brown adipocytes (BAs) dissipate energy in the form of heat and are responsible for non-shivering thermogenesis . White and brown fat differ in morphology as well as function. Mature WAs contain a single lipid droplet ('unilocular'), few mitochondria, and a nucleus which is displaced to the cytoplasmic periphery. BAs employ numerous mitochondria in heat production. Their lipid is packaged in multiple droplets ('multilocular') and their nuclei are centrally located. The inner mitochondrial membrane of BAs contains uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1). While an alternative non-shivering thermogenesis pathway has been proposed recently for mammalian brown adipocytes , in canonical non-shivering thermogenesis heat production depends entirely on UCP1, which facilitates proton leakage and short-circuits oxidative phosphorylation .
Although birds can maintain their body temperature by non-shivering thermogenesis and form multilocular adipocytes in response to cold acclimation [4, 5] they lack functional BAT [4, 6]. Expression of UCP1 is the hallmark of BAs, being absent in WAs, and is the only member of the UCP multigene family to have unambiguous uncoupling activity under physiological conditions . No homologs of this gene have been identified in any bird species  (although birds have the paralogous avUCP ). While UCP1 is present in both fish  and amphibians , its function in cold-blooded animals is unknown.
Most studies on adipogenesis have focused on the development of white adipose tissue. WA differentiation has three distinct steps. First, mesenchymal stem cells transform into committed preadipocytes, which have a fibroblastic morphology. Second, white preadipocytes divide until cell-cell contact inhibits their proliferation [11, 12]. Third, in the presence of the appropriate differentiation factors (in in vitro studies), these preadipocytes enter the cell cycle again, divide at least two more times and finally differentiate into WAs [11, 12].
Terminal differentiation of WAs is preceded by the induction of CCAAT/enhancer binding proteins beta (C/EBPβ) and delta (C/EBPδ), which in turn mediate the transcriptional activation of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ (PPARγ) and C/EBPα. PPARγ is a key factor of WA differentiation [11, 12] and its forced expression in non-adipogenic fibroblasts is sufficient to induce adipogenesis . Thus, PPARγ plays a crucial role in the expression of many, and perhaps most, fat-cell-specific genes , including those specifying adipocyte-specific fatty acid-binding protein (FABP4)  and other proteins involved in lipid homeostasis .
While less is known about BA differentiation, several steps occur in common with white adipogenesis. During the initial steps, the mesenchymal progenitor cells become committed as fibroblast-like preadipocytes. Although these cannot be distinguished morphologically from white preadipocytes  their gene expression signature is already different from the latter at this stage . The key WA differentiation transcriptional factor, PPARγ, is also involved in BA differentiation [16–18]. However, while PPARγ is necessary and sufficient to induce the WA differentiation program, it is necessary but not sufficient for BA differentiation. In addition, a PPARγ interacting protein, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ coactivator 1α (PGC-1α), which is expressed preferentially in BAs relative to WAs, is required to generate the former cell type . In muscle cells, PGC-1α mediates the increase in mitochondria by stimulating gene expression of nuclear respiratory factors (NRF) 1 and 2, and consequently mitochondrial transcriptional factor A (mitTFA) .
Here we report that a stem cell-like mesenchymal population derived from embryonic avian limb buds can be induced to differentiate into BA-like cells in vitro. We show that whereas UCP1 is absent from the chicken genome [10, 21], foreclosing the development of authentic BAs, the conditions that induce avian BA-like cells (ABALCs) elicit expression of a virtually complete mammalian-like BA differentiation pathway, to the extent that transfected mouse UCP1 promoter is strongly activated. The unusual circumstance of a gene being present in a conserved chromosomal context in fish, amphibians and mammals, but not birds, prompted us to look for it in the same context in the recently mapped Anolis lizard genome, where it was also absent. This suggests that the gene, and the capacity to produce brown fat, were lost no later than in the saurian common ancestor of birds and lizards, a lineage that also included all theropod dinosaurs.
Results and Discussion
Brown adipocyte-like morphology in cultured limb bud mesenchyme
Both cell origin and treatment regimen were critical for producing what we term ABALCs. When LBM cells were grown in ADM with chicken serum (CS), for example, they differentiated into cells with the WA phenotype (Figure 1e), and when they were grown in ADM with fetal bovine serum (FBS) they showed no adipocyte-like morphological features (Figure 1f). Significantly, cells grown in FBS for 8 days nonetheless constituted a bipotential preadipocyte population, since when they were transferred into a medium containing CS or HS they uniformly differentiated into WAs or ABALCs, respectively (data not shown). We therefore refer to them as limb bud-derived preadipocytes (LBPAs).
Mean cross-sectional areas of adipocytes and lipid droplets in ABALCs and white fat adipocytes
Cross sectional area (μm2)
191.8 ± 8.2*
0.40 ± 0.01*
716.7 ± 35.4*
51.7 ± 9.7*
Mean volume density of cytoplasm, nuclei, mitochondria and lipid droplets in ABALCs and white fat adipocytes
Volume density (μm3/100 μm3 of cell)
73.17 ± 4.1*
7.88 ± 2.5
4.18 ± 0.58*
14.8 ± 3.9*
5.91 ± 1.0*
2.44 ± 1.1
0.71 ± 0.14*
90.9 ± 1.6*
Mean volume and number density of mitochondria and lipid droplets in ABALCs and white fat adipocytes
Volume of a single organelle (μm3)
Number density (per μm2 cell)
0.72 ± 0.14
1.88 ± 0.4*
0.076 ± 0.012*
0.11 ± 0.02*
0.52 ± 0.16
788 ± 289*
0.017 ± 0.003*
0.002 ± 0.0003*
ABALCs utilize common pathways of adipocyte differentiation
ABALC induction involves pathways specific to BA differentiation
We found that expression of PGC-1α mRNA was 5 to 10 times higher in ABALCs than in LBM, LBPAs, WAs obtained from VSCs (VSCAs) in vitro, or late embryonic white fat cells (Figure 3c). Similarly, the expression of mRNA for PPARα and DiO2 (Type II iodothyronine deiodinase), additional proteins previously found to be upregulated in BAs relative to their preadipocytes or WAs [30, 31], was increased in ABALCs in comparison to VSC adipocytes (Figure 3d). Thus, ABALCs not only resemble mammalian BAs morphologically but also with respect to their molecular signature.
The chicken and lizard genomes lack the UCP1 gene
Comparison of genomic regions flanked by Elmod2 and Tbc1d9 in selected organisms
Interval between Elmod2-Tbc1d9 (bases)
Number of ORF > 100 aa
UCP1 gene length
Number of exons
Longest exon (bases)
Shortest exon (bases)
Chromosome or scaffold*
Activation of an exogenous UCP1 promoter during ABALC differentiation
Conclusion and evolutionary implications
We have shown that adipocytes with the brown fat phenotype, termed ABALCs, can be induced in embryonic chicken mesenchymal cells in vitro. ABALCs not only share morphology with mammalian BAs but also express the brown fat regulatory protein PGC-1α, have increased mitochondrial genome number and produce all necessary factors for mammalian UCP1 promoter activation.
While it has been suggested that BAs and WAs originate from a common population of mesenchymal cells, it is not known how and at what stage the differentiation pathways diverge from one another. The view that BAT and WAT are distinct terminally differentiated tissues is supported by their different functions and morphological features  and the fact that precursor cells isolated from brown or white fat differentiate into BAs and WAs, respectively, in vitro . Furthermore, BAs and WAs have different 'expression signatures' . It is still not clear, however, if mesenchymal cells of different origin have restricted ability to differentiate into BAs or WAs or, rather, if the location of those mesenchymal cells determines their differentiation fate. Our results confirm earlier findings [34, 36] that plasticity of mesenchymal cells is already lost in VSC preadipocytes, since these precursor cells were not able to differentiate into ABALCs in response to the stimulus that elicits this phenotype from LBM.
Most significantly, because LBM can give rise with near uniformity to adipocytes with white and brown fat cellular phenotypes under different culture conditions, our results suggest that LBM may be a source of a common BA and WA stem cell, which up to now has proved elusive . If it can be confirmed that LBM of mammalian species indeed generates both WA and authentic BA, this system would be ideal for studying the relationship between the different adipocyte differentiation pathways, a growing issue in obesity research [11, 12].
Results with knockout mice demonstrate that even in mammals the developmental pathway for producing multilocular adipose tissue does not depend on UCP1 . If thermogenic brown fat evolved before the loss of UCP1 during avian evolution, the non-thermogenic brown fat-like tissue that would have remained could have had its own adaptive function. Indeed, all reports of BAT-like tissue in birds and turtles have described it as highly vascularized [5, 37, 38], suggesting that it can serve as source of fuel which can be rapidly mobilized and transported to other sites (for example, muscles), in the form of fatty acids .
Homeotherms, such as mammals and birds, have adaptations that protect developing offspring and young from the ill effects of cold. In mammals, the embryos are mainly incubated internally and brown adipose tissue is particularly abundant at juvenile stages. Oviparous birds and presumably dinosaurs, lacking thermogenic BAT (although, notably, an egg-laying mammal, the platypus, has a UCP1 gene; Table 4), would require other means, which in birds include feathers, brooding incubation, and non-shivering thermogenesis mediated by expression of avUCP in muscles [39, 40]. No information is available concerning avUCP in dinosaurs, but it is not likely that these large featherless animals were effective brooders. The lack of thermogenic BAT may thus have been more of a liability to the developing embryos of oviparous dinosaurs than to those of birds. Further investigations of the possible occurrence of the UCP1 gene and the BA pathway in testudine reptiles (that is, turtles and tortoises) should clarify the evolutionary history of brown fat as well as the phylogenetic relationships among modern amniotes.
Mesenchymal cells were isolated from distal tips of 5-day chicken embryo leg buds as described previously . Cells were dissociated in TrypLE Express solution (Gibco), washed and resuspended for plating 4 × 105 cells per ml, and seeded in 24-well tissue culture plates in plating medium (M199 containing 10% FBS and 1% PenStrep (Gibco)) at a cell density of 2 × 105 cells per well. Cells were maintained in plating medium for 24 hours, when adipocyte differentiation was initiated by addition of adipocyte differentiation medium (ADM) (60% DMEM/40% F12, 20 μg/ml insulin, 500 nM dexamethasone, 1% PenStrep, 10% HS or, depending on the experiment, 10% CS or FBS). Preadipocyte cell cultures were grown in plating medium without initiation of differentiation. Vascular-stromal cells were isolated from 30-day postnatal chickens, as described . Cells were dissociated and plated as for mesenchymal cells. Adipocyte differentiation was initiated in these cultures by adding ADM when cells reached about 80% confluence.
Adipocytes grown in ADM with HS for 22 days were scraped off the wells of culture plates, centrifuged at 500 rpm in a microcentrifuge in microfuge tubes to form a soft pellet. The pellet was fixed for 1 hour, gently scooped off the bottom of the tube and further fixed overnight (16 to 18 hours) at 4°C with a chilled (4°C) fixative containing 3% glutaraldehyde, 4% paraformadehyde, 4% polyvinylpyrrolidone (MW 10,000), 4% sucrose and 2 mM CaCl2, prepared in 0.1 M cacodylate buffer with a final pH of 7.4. The pellet was post-fixed in 1% Osmium tetroxide for 1 hour, dehydrated through a graded series of ethanol, embedded in Spurr's resin and polymerized at 60°C. In addition, abdominal fat pads from 15-day chicken embryos were fixed, dehydrated and embedded in resin in the same fashion. Thin sections (silver in interface) from the resin blocks were mounted on copper grids, stained with uranyl acetate and lead citrate and examined using JEOL or Hitachi electron microscopes.
Electron micrographs (24.7 × 18.1 cm2) were obtained from random fields at a magnification of × 7,500. The magnification was checked at frequent intervals using a carbon graticule. Volume densities (Vv) of 'cytoplasm' (area of the cell which excludes nucleus, mitochondria, and fat droplets), nucleus, mitochondria, and fat droplets of adipocytes were determined by point counting  using a transparent grid with 682 intersections. Number densities (number per μm2 of cell) of mitochondria and fat droplets of the adipocytes were also determined [28, 29]. The β values for the calculation of the number density [28, 29] of mitochondria and fat droplets were determined by taking measurements from over 275 mitochondria and fat droplets of adipocytes of tissue cultures from each treatment and abdominal fat pads using the NIH Image J program. Cross-sectional areas of fat droplets were determined from electron micrographs, and cross-sectional areas of whole fat cells were determined on Toluidine blue stained semi-thin sections from the same resin blocks, using NIH Image J.
Cell cultures were washed with 1× PBS (phosphate buffered saline, pH 7.4) and fixed for 10 minutes in 4% paraformaldehyde solution in 1× PBS. Cells were then briefly rinsed in 1× PBS and stained with a 0.5% Oil-Red O (Fluka) solution in isopropanol/water (6:4) for 1 hour at room temperature. Cells were washed in 1× PBS and stained with Hematoxylin (Fisher) for 2 minutes and then washed again in 1× PBS. Microscopic pictures were obtained with an Zeiss Axiovert 40C microscope equipped with an Olympus C7070 digital camera.
Total RNA was isolated from cell cultures or cells with the RNeasy Mini kit (Qiagen) according to the manufacturer's instructions. RNA was reverse transcribed by AMV (Fisher). Briefly, 200 to 1,000 ng of RNA and Oligo dT (0.5 μg primer per 1 μg of RNA) was heated at 70°C for 5 minutes. The tube was chilled on ice for 5 minutes and a master mix containing AMV buffer, dNTPs (1 mM each base), 40 units ribonuclease inhibitor and 30 units AMV RT was added. The reaction was performed at 42°C for 1 hour and stopped by AMV inactivation by heating at 80°C for 3 minutes. Genomic and mitochondrial DNA were isolated using the QIAamp DNA Mini kit (Qiagen). Comparative qPCR was performed on the Mx3005P instrument (Stratagene) using Brilliant SYBR Green QPCR master mix, and following the standard comparative qPCR protocol. All primers (Additional file 2) were designed using the Beacon Designer program (Premier Biosoft, Palo Alto, CA).
Cell cultures were washed with Earle's balanced salt solution (EBSS) and JC-1 dye diluted in 500 μl of DMEM to a final concentration of 2 μM was added to each well. Cells were incubated for 10 minutes in a 5% CO2 incubator and washed with EBSS without Ca2+ and Mg2+ and then dissociated in TrypLe Express, counted and resuspended in EBSS with a density of 106 cells per ml. Freshly isolated mesenchymal cells were resuspended in EBSS with 2 μM JC-1 and placed for 10 minutes in a CO2 incubator. The cells were then washed and resuspended in EBSS. The forward and right angle scatter, as well as green and red fluorescence emissions of cultured and mesenchymal cells, were measured in a FACScan flow cytometer (BD Biosciences, San Diego, CA). Data were acquired and analyzed using Cell Quest software (BD Biosciences).
UCP1 promoter activation assay
A mouse UCP1 promoter pGL/basic construct  was a gift from Dr. J Rim and Dr. L Kozak. LBM cells or VSCs were grown in plating medium for 1 day. The transfection complexes containing siPORT-XP-1 (Applied Biosystems), 200 ng of pGL-UCP1 promoter-Firefly Luciferase construct, 20 ng pGL-TK Renilla Luciferase construct (Promega) and OptiMem (Invitrogen) were added on the second day with ADM without antibiotics. Mouse UCP1 promoter activation was estimated on the second day after transfection by the Dual-Luciferase reporter assay (Promega) in a model 20/20 luminometer (Turner Biosystems).
List of abbreviations
avian brown adipocyte-like cell
adipocyte differentiation medium
brown adipose tissue
CCAAT/enhancer binding protein
- DiO2 :
type II iodothyronine deiodinase
adipocyte-specific fatty acid-binding protein
fetal bovine serum
limb bud mesenchyme
limb bud preadipocyte
mitochondrial transcriptional factor A
nuclear respiratory factor
peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor
peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor γ coactivator 1α
quantitative polymerase chain reaction
quantitative reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction
uncoupling protein 1
vascular stromal cell
vascular stromal cells adipocyte
We thank F Hannan and P Lucas for useful discussions, C Hamby for help with flow cytometry, and J Rim and L Kozak, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, for the generous gift of a mouse UCP1 promoter-luciferase construct. In addition, we thank Jeff Swift and the Electron Microscopy Facility, Institute of Medical and Veterinary Sciences (IMVS), Adelaide for assistance in EM; Ian Parkinson, IMVS for assistance in morphometry; Dale Caville, Discipline of Pathology and Tavik Morgenstern, Discipline of Anatomical Sciences, University of Adelaide for assistance in the preparation of photographs for analysis and figures for publication. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Animal Developmental Mechanisms and Frontiers in Integrative Biological Sciences programs.
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