Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have discovered a new set of signals that cells send and receive to prompt a type of fat cell to convert fat into heat.

Thermogenic fat cells, also called beige fat or beige adipocytes, have gained attention in recent years for their potential to curb obesity and other metabolic disorders due to their ability to burn energy stored as fat.

The signaling pathway was discovered in mice and has potential implications for activating the same type of thermogenic fat in humans.

But there has been a challenge with the process. It is regulated through adrenergic signaling, which uses the hormone catecholamine to instruct beige fat cells to start burning energy. However, adrenergic signaling also controls other biological functions including blood pressure and heartbeat regulation, potentially creating dangerous side effects.

In a study published online on June 12 in the journal Developmental Cell, a team of researchers led by the U-M Life Sciences Institute describes a pathway that can regulate beige fat thermogenesis independently of adrenergic signaling. Instead, it operates through a receptor protein called Cholinergic Receptor Nicotinic Alpha 2 Subunit (CHRNA2).

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