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The Skinny on Fat Cells

Bruce Spiegelman has spent his career at the forefront of adipocyte differentiation and metabolism.

Nov 1, 2015
Anna Azvolinsky

Bruce Spiegelman
Stanley J. Korsmeyer Professor of Cell Biology
   and Medicine
Harvard Medical School
Director, Center for Energy Metabolism
   and Chronic
Disease, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston
It’s hard to know whether you have the right stuff to be a scientist, but I had a passion for the research,” says Bruce Spiegelman, professor of cell biology at Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. After receiving his PhD in biochemistry from Princeton University in 1978, Spiegelman sent an application to do postdoctoral research to just one lab. “I wasn’t thinking I should apply to five different labs. I just marched forward more or less in a straight line,” he says. Spiegelman did know that he had no financial backup and depended on research fellowships throughout the early phase of his science career. “I thought it was fantastic, and still think so, that a PhD in science is supported by the government. I certainly appreciated that, because many of my friends in the humanities had to support themselves by cobbling together fellowships and teaching every semester, whereas we didn’t face similar challenges in the sciences.”

Since his graduate student days, Spiegelman has realized his potential, pioneering the study of adipose tissue biology and metabolism. He was introduced to the field in Howard Green’s laboratory, then at MIT, where Spiegelman began his one and only postdoc in 1978. Green had recently developed a system for culturing adipose cells and asked Spiegelman if he wanted to study fat cell differentiation. “I knew nothing about adipose tissue, but I was really interested in any model of how one cell switches to another. Whether skin or fat didn’t matter too much to me, because I was not coming at this from the perspective of physiology but from the perspective of how do these switches work at a molecular level?”

Spiegelman has stuck with studying the biology and differentiation of fat cells for more than 30 years. While looking for the master transcriptional regulator of fat development—which his laboratory found in 1994—Spiegelman’s group also discovered one of the first examples of a nuclear oncogene that functions as a transcription factor, and, more recently, the team found that brown fat and white fat come from completely different origins and that brown and beige fat are distinct cell types. Spiegelman was also the first to provide evidence for the connection between inflammation, insulin resistance, and fat tissue.

“Very early on, I felt that I couldn’t understand biology if it didn’t go to the molecular level.”

Here, Spiegelman talks about his strong affinity for the East Coast, his laboratory’s search for molecules that can crank up brown fat production and activity, and the culture of his laboratory’s weekly meeting.

Spiegelman Sets Out

First publication. Spiegelman grew up in Massapequa, New York, a town on Long Island. “Birds, insects, fish, and animals were fascinating to me. As a kid, I imagined I would be a wildlife ranger,” he says. Spiegelman and his brother were the first in their family to attend college; Spiegelman entered the College of William and Mary in 1970 thinking he would major in psychology. But before taking his first psychology course, he had to take a biology course, really loved it, and switched his major. For his senior thesis, he chose one of the few labs that did biochemistry-related research. He studied cultures of the filamentous fungus Aspergillus ornatus in which he induced the upregulation of a metabolic enzyme. Spiegelman applied a calculus transformation that related the age of the culture to the age of individual cells, something that had not been previously done. The work earned him his first first-author publication in 1975. “It was not a great breakthrough, but I think it showed that I was maybe applying myself more than the typical undergraduate.”

Full steam ahead. “My interest in laboratory research was intense. Even though it was not particularly inspired work, the first-author publication in a college where not many of the professors published a lot gave me a lot of confidence. It was probably out of proportion to the quality of the actual work.” That confidence and Spiegelman’s interest in the chemistry of living things led him to pursue a PhD in biochemistry at Princeton University. “Very early on, I felt that I couldn’t understand biology if it didn’t go to the molecular level. To me, just describing how an animal lived without understanding how it worked was very unsatisfying. I think it was one of the best decisions that I made in my life, to do a PhD in biochemistry,” he says, “because if you really want to understand living systems, you are very limited in how you can understand them without having a strong background in biochemistry because these are, essentially, chemical systems.”  

Embracing molecular biology. Spiegelman initially joined Arthur Pardee’s laboratory, but switched when Pardee left Princeton for Harvard University in 1975. Because he was already collaborating with Marc Kirschner, a cell biologist and biochemist who studies the regulation of the cell cycle and how the cytoskeleton works, it was an easy transition to transfer to the new laboratory. In Kirschner’s group, Spiegelman became the cell biologist among many protein biochemists working on microtubule assembly in vitro. Rather than understanding how the proteins fit together to form the filamentous structures, Spiegelman wanted to understand what controlled their assembly inside cells. Working in mammalian cells, Spiegelman published three consecutive Cell papers on how microtubule assembly occurs in vivo. The first paper, from 1977, demonstrated that a nucleotide functions to stabilize the tubulin molecule rather than to regulate tubulin assembly in vivo.

Spiegelman Simmers

A new tool. For his next move, Spiegelman wanted to marry his background in biochemistry and molecular biology with a good cellular model system. He became interested in differentiation at the end of his PhD, while studying how the cytoskeleton is reorganized during neural differentiation, and settled on Green’s MIT laboratory for his postdoc. Green had developed a way to study both skin and fat cell differentiation. Again, Spiegelman was the odd man out, working on the molecular biology of fat cell differentiation while most of the graduate students and postdocs focused on the cellular biology of skin cell differentiation. While there, Spiegelman learned how to clone cDNA—a new method that some researchers thought was just another new fad, he says. “I thought it was pretty obvious that this was a tool that would be a game changer. I could see how I could clone some of the cDNAs and genes that were regulated in the fat cell lineage and then try to understand the regulation of these genes.”

Setting the stage. Spiegelman demonstrated that cAMP regulates the synthesis of certain enzymes in fat cells during differentiation. But while this was the most influential paper from his postdoc, says Spiegelman, it was his demonstration of cloning mRNAs from adipocytes, published in 1983, that set the stage for cloning fat-selective genes. The work, mostly done when Spiegelman was already a new faculty member at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, stemmed from his learning molecular cloning in Phillip Sharp’s lab at MIT and Bryan Roberts’s lab at Harvard. “This was the raw material from which we eventually cloned PPARγ and showed it to be the master regulator of fat [cell] development.”

Roots. Spiegelman became an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School in 1982, when he was not yet 30. Although he had entertained the idea of moving to the West Coast with his wife, whom he had met at Princeton where she obtained a PhD in French literature, Spiegelman says he is really an East Coaster at heart. “My wife and I came to love Boston and were very comfortable there. Our families were both in New York, which was close, but not too close, and we really enjoyed the culture and pace of Boston; it was more ‘us.’ We really liked to visit California but didn’t particularly want to move there. We’re both real Northeastern people.”

Relating to Sisyphus. The transition from doing a postdoc to setting up his own laboratory was “very exciting and terribly stressful,” says Spiegelman. “When I think back, I always tried to be professional with my laboratory, but I was so stressed at suddenly being on my own with no management training.” The people resources he had encountered in his graduate and postdoctoral training labs were also not there yet, and he says his first publication as a principal investigator was like pushing a rock up a hill. But eventually, Spiegelman’s lab built a reputation and reached a critical mass of talented people who advanced the science. Again in 1983, Spiegelman produced a publication showing that morphological manipulation can affect gene expression and adipose differentiation.

End goal. Spiegelman’s goal was to find a master molecule that  orchestrates the conversion of adipocyte precursor cells into bona fide fat cells. Piece by piece, his lab identified the enhancers, promoters, and other regulatory elements involved in adipocyte differentiation. In 1994, graduate student Peter Tontonoz finally found that the PPARγ gene, inserted via a retroviral vector into fibroblasts, could induce the cells to become adipose cells. “It took 10 years,” Spiegelman says. Along the way, the laboratory found that c-fos, the product of a famous nuclear oncogene, bound to the promoters of fat-specific genes and worked as a transcription factor. “It was not really known how nuclear oncogenes worked. This was one of the first papers showing that these oncogenes bound to gene promoters and were transcription factors.”

A wider scope. In 1993, graduate student Gökhan Hotamisligil found that tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), is induced in the fat tissue of rodent models of obesity and diabetes. The paper sparked the formation of the field of immunometabolism and resulted in the expansion of Spiegelman’s lab into the physiology arena, partly thanks to the guidance of C. Ronald Kahn and Jeff Flier, who both study metabolism and diabetes. But the work initially encountered pushback, says Spiegelman, partly because it was the merging of two fields.

Spiegelman Scales Up

Fat color palette. Brown fat tissue, abundant in infants but scarce in adults, is a metabolically active form of fat that is chock full of mitochondria and is found in pockets in the body distinct from white fat tissue. Pere Puigserver, then a postdoc in Spiegelman’s lab, found that the coactivator PCG-1, binding to PPARγ and other nuclear receptors, could stimulate mitochondrial biogenesis. The PCG-1 gene is turned on by stimuli such as exercise or a cold environment. Later, postdoc Patrick Seale, Spiegelman, and their colleagues showed brown fat cells derive from the same lineage that gives rise to skeletal muscle. “This was a big surprise, maybe the biggest surprise we ever uncovered in the lab,” says Spiegelman.

A paler shade of brown. More recently, in 2012, Spiegelman’s laboratory showed that within adult white adipose tissue, there are pockets of a yet another type of fat tissue that he called beige fat. “I think the evidence is very good from rodents that if you activate brown and beige fat, you get metabolic benefit both in obesity and diabetes. So the question now is: Can that be done in humans in a way that’s beneficial and not toxic?”  The lab is now looking to identify molecules that can either ramp up the activity of brown and beige fat or increase the production of both cell types as possible therapeutics for metabolic disorders or even cancer-associated cachexia. “Anyone who says that either approach will work better is being foolish. We just don’t know enough to go after just one or the other.”

On the irisin controversy. After reporting in 2012 that a muscle-related hormone called irisin could switch white fat to metabolically active brown fat, Spiegelman became embroiled in a media-covered debate about whether the molecule really exists; he was also the victim of a potential fraud plot. Most recently, Spiegelman provided thorough evidence that irisin does in fact exist. On the controversy, he says it’s a fine line between defending his scientific integrity and not adding more fuel to the fire or engaging with his harassers. “We have a long track record of doing credible and reproducible science and it was not that complicated to address the paper that claimed irisin was ‘a myth.’ That study used very outmoded scientific approaches.”

Raw talent. Many of Spiegelman’s trainees have gone on to become very successful scientists, including Tontonoz, Hotamisligil, Evan Rosen, and Randy Johnson. “It’s a quantum change in the experience of doing science when you get people who have their own visions. I would have thought that interacting with smart people would mainly help me get my scientific vision accomplished. And that was partly true, but also it changed my vision. When you have people challenging you on a day-to-day basis, you learn from them through the questions they ask and the way they challenge you in a constructive way. They made me a much better scientist.”

Rigorous mentorship.  “I feel very passionately that a major part of my job is to prepare the next generation of scientists. Everyone who comes through my lab will tell you that I take that very seriously. We make sure my students give a lot of talks and get critical assessments of their presentations to our lab group. I am very hands-on both scientifically and in developing the way students project their vision. I had a very good mentor, Marc Kirschner, and I’d like to think that I learned how to be a mentor from him. I want to make sure that when people walk out of my lab they are prepared to run independent research programs.” 

Greatest Hits

  • Identified the master regulator of adipogenesis, the nuclear receptor PPARγ
  • Was the first to show that a nuclear oncogene, c-fos, codes for a transcription factor that binds to the promoters of genes
  • Demonstrated that adipose tissue synthesizes tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), providing the first direct link between obesity, inflammation, insulin resistance, and fat tissue.
  • Showed that brown fat cells are not developmentally related to white fat
  • Identified beige fat as a distinct cell type, different from either white or brown fat

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