New Imaging Study Reveals How Saturated Fatty Acids Damage Cells

Source: Columbia University

Summary: Researchers have developed a new microscopy technique which allows the direct tracking of fatty acids after their absorption into the living cells.

A new fad diet seems to appear suddenly every few years in our health-conscious society. With so many choices (Atkins, Zone, Ketogenic, Vegetarian, Vegan, South Beach, Raw) and scientific evidence to back them, it very difficult to know what’s healthy and what’s not. But however, one message is clear that saturated fats are bad, while unsaturated fats, such as those from fish and olive oil, can be protective. It is long known that saturated fats contribute to the lipid-related diseases but the exact mechanism was unknown. To find the answers, Researchers from the  Columbia University have developed a new microscopy technique which allows the direct tracking of fatty acids after their absorption into the living cells. The study findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fatty acid chains with single bonds

Saturated fatty acids build lipids that form ‘frozen islands’ (blue) in the cell membrane (green). Credit: Nicoletta Barolini, Columbia University

In this microscopy technique, hydrogen atoms on fatty acids are replaced with isotope, deuterium, without changing their physicochemical properties and behavior like traditional strategies do. By making this change, all molecules made from fatty acids can be observed inside living cells by an advanced imaging technique called Stimulated Raman Scattering (SRS) Microscopy. The team reported that the cellular process of cell membrane formation from saturated fatty acids results in patches of hardened membrane in which molecules are “frozen.” In normal healthy conditions, this membrane should be flexible and the molecules fluidic. It revealed a previously unknown toxic physical state of the saturated lipid accumulation inside cellular membranes. This finding will have a significant impact on both the understanding and treatment of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Prof. Wei Min said, “The behavior of saturated fatty acids once they’ve entered cells contributes to major and often deadly diseases”, “Visualizing how fatty acids are contributing to lipid metabolic disease gives us the direct physical information we need to begin looking for effective ways to treat them. Perhaps, for example, we can find a way to block the toxic lipid accumulation. We’re excited. This finding has the potential to really impact public health, especially for lipid-related diseases.”

More Information: Yihui Shen et al, “Metabolic activity induces membrane phase separation in endoplasmic reticulum”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1712555114

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