Gene editing can alter body fat and may fight diabetes

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People are among mammals that have “bad” fat and “good” fat. Too much of the bad white type, which stores energy, makes us obese. The brown type burns energy, helping us stay lean. Scientists have now created human brown fat cells in the lab and transferred it into mice. These rodents gained less weight from a fatty diet. They also became healthier.

Scientists hope such a strategy might do the same thing in people. Aaron Cypess explains how brown fat burns calories to generate heat.

It’s been well known that infants and hibernating animals have brown fat. Mice, for example, have depots of it between their shoulder blades. This fat’s color comes from a high blood flow and many tiny power factories, known as mitochondria (My-toh-KON-dree-uh). Low temperatures turn on those power factories in brown fat. Mitochondria convert into heat the chemical energy in food and stored white fat. This helps infants stay warm and small mammals survive cold winters.

In 2009, researchers showed adult humans also have brown fat that responds to cold temperatures. Adults also have beige fat scattered within their white fat. Beige fat is not quite white or brown but somewhere in between. When needed, it becomes brown to turn more calories into warmth. It becomes white-ish again when that’s no longer needed. How much brown and beige fat adults host is unknown, but it’s a lot less than in mice. The amount strongly depends on someone’s body composition. Lean people tend to have more active brown and beige fat than do obese people.

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