Leptin is synthesized exclusively by adipocytes and acts on the hypothalamus to regulate energy balance. Previous messenger RNA expression studies demonstrated that leptin is expressed in white adipocytes and also in brown adipose tissue, however expression in brown fat is markedly lower than in white fat. This suggests the possibility that leptin expression in brown adipose tissue is due to the presence of white adipocytes that reside within brown adipose tissue, and that brown adipocytes actually do not express leptin. To address this point, we performed immunohistochemistry on paraffin sections and studied leptin protein expression in different depots of white and brown fat of lean and obese (db/db) mice. To establish the cell type expressing leptin, we also assessed the size and organization of lipid droplets, the ultrastructural features of mitochondria, and the presence or absence of uncoupling protein, a brown fat-specific marker. In white adipose tissue of lean and obese (db/db) mice, leptin protein was expressed in adipocytes of various sizes (range examined: 19.67-200 microns), including adipocytes at the multilocular stage of differentiation. Leptin staining was more intense in some depots (retroperitoneal), and appeared to decrease with fasting. In brown adipose tissue of lean animals, multilocular uncoupling protein (UCP)-positive brown adipocytes had typical brown mitochondria and were leptin-negative, both in fed and fasted conditions. At the periphery of the interscapular brown adipose tissue depot, unilocular, UCP-negative adipocytes (mean diameter: 41.55 microns) with white-type mitochondria were observed, and these cells were leptin-positive. In obese (db/db) animals, brown fat was composed mainly of small unilocular, UCP-positive. adipocytes (mean diameter: 40.08 microns), which were also leptin-positive. At the periphery of the organ, numerous large, unilocular, UCP-negative adipocytes (mean diameter: 73.65 microns) with white-like mitochondria were present. As expected, these cells were also leptin-positive. In summary, classical brown adipocytes differ from white adipocytes, not only by their morphology and UCP expression, but also by their apparent lack of detectable leptin expression. db/db brown adipocytes, however, were unilocular and leptin-positive. The molecular mechanisms mediating expression of leptin in white but not brown adipocytes of lean animals, and the significant expression of leptin in brown adipocytes of db/db mice will be the focus of future studies.
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