Scientists have achieved a significant breakthrough in understanding obesity and its associated diseases, such as diabetes. They have successfully revealed the molecular structure of a protein called ‘uncoupling protein 1’ (UCP1), which plays a crucial role in enabling brown fat tissue to burn calories as heat. This discovery opens up the possibility of developing treatments that can artificially activate UCP1, leading to the burning of excess calories from fat and sugar. Such treatments have the potential to combat obesity and diabetes.
A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia, including a PhD student from St Catharine’s College and an alumnus, played a pivotal role in this groundbreaking research endeavor.
Scott Jones, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit and the primary author of the study, expressed his delight at the publication of the protein’s structure. His research has focused on unraveling the mysteries of the human uncoupling protein and understanding its functionality and regulation.
Dr. Martin King, an alumnus from St Catharine’s College and also associated with the University of Cambridge’s MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit, was a co-author of the recently published paper in the journal Science Advances. The research team achieved this breakthrough through an international collaboration with colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania and the Free University of Brussels.
The newly acquired molecular insights into UCP1 provide essential information for the development of therapeutics that can activate the protein artificially, thus aiding in the burning of excess calories from fat and sugar. This breakthrough holds promise for combating obesity and related conditions, such as diabetes.
Dr. Paul Crichton from the University of East Anglia explained that brown fat, also known as “good fat,” possesses the ability to break down blood sugar and fat molecules to generate heat and maintain body temperature. In contrast, white fat stores energy and contributes to obesity when present in excess. UCP1 serves as the key protein enabling specialized brown fat to burn calories as heat. The research aims to find ways to increase brown fat and activate UCP1 therapeutically, potentially offering a solution for treating obesity.
Despite more than four decades of research, the molecular structure and functioning of UCP1 remained unknown until now. The team utilized the Krios G3i, a cryogenic electron microscope at the Penn Singh Center for Nanotechnology, to observe UCP1 at the atomic level.
Professor Edmund Kunji, the lead researcher from the University of Cambridge, stated that their work not only revealed the atomic structure of UCP1 but also shed light on how its activity in brown fat cells is inhibited by a regulatory molecule. Furthermore, this knowledge will help scientists understand how activating molecules bind to UCP1, leading to the burning of fat. The activated brown fat tissue can also help regulate diabetes by removing glucose from the blood. The discovery marks a significant breakthrough in this field.
The research received support from the Medical Research Council, the Biological and Biotechnological Sciences Research Council, and the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Nanobody discovery was funded by Instruct-ERIC, the European Strategy Forum on Research infrastructures, the Research Foundation – Flanders, and the Strategic Research Program of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about protein UCP1
What is the significance of the protein UCP1 in obesity and diabetes research?
The protein UCP1 plays a crucial role in enabling brown fat tissue to burn calories as heat. Understanding its molecular structure opens up possibilities for developing treatments that activate UCP1, potentially combating obesity and diabetes by burning excess calories.
How was the molecular structure of UCP1 discovered?
Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia, in collaboration with international colleagues, utilized a cryogenic electron microscope to view UCP1 at the atomic level. This allowed them to uncover the protein’s molecular structure in detail.
What potential impact does this discovery have on obesity and diabetes treatments?
The newfound knowledge about UCP1’s structure can aid in the development of therapeutics that artificially activate the protein. By doing so, excess calories from fat and sugar can be burned off, potentially offering solutions for obesity and related diseases such as diabetes.
What are the benefits of brown fat tissue burning calories as heat?
Brown fat tissue, often referred to as “good fat,” has the ability to break down blood sugar and fat molecules to generate heat, which helps maintain body temperature. Activating UCP1 in brown fat tissue can promote calorie burning and potentially contribute to weight management and metabolic health.
How long did it take to reveal the molecular structure of UCP1?
The research project spanned over a decade, with scientists dedicating significant efforts to unravel the molecular makeup of UCP1. The breakthrough came after more than 40 years of research in the field.
Who supported and contributed to this research?
The research received support from the Medical Research Council, the Biological and Biotechnological Sciences Research Council, and the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Collaboration between the UK team and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania and the Free University of Brussels was instrumental in achieving this breakthrough.
More about protein UCP1
- Science Advances – Structural basis of purine nucleotide inhibition of human uncoupling protein 1
- University of Cambridge – New Obesity Breakthrough
- University of East Anglia – Obesity Breakthrough: Protein Molecular Structure Discovery
- Penn Medicine – Obesity Research
- Instruct-ERIC – Research Infrastructures