The effects of retinoic acid (RA) isomers (all-trans-RA and 9-cis-RA) on the appearance of uncoupling protein (UCP; thermogenin), the only unequivocal molecular marker of the brown adipocyte differentiated phenotype, have been investigated in primary cultures of brown adipocytes, in the brown adipocyte cell line HIB 1B and directly in intact mice. The results obtained with cultured cells indicate that retinoids function as inducers of the appearance of UCP and, at the same time, partially inhibit brown adipocyte cell proliferation. The two RA isomers displayed similar effectiveness as UCP inducers, their effect being comparable with that triggered by noradrenaline, so far considered to be the main modulator of UCP gene expression. The effectiveness of retinoids as UCP inducers was dependent on the stage of brown adipocyte differentiation, being maximal in confluent primary cells and in the medium-late differentiation stage of HIB 1B cells. Corroborating the results obtained in vitro, we show that administration of all-trans-RA or 9-cis-RA to mice leads to an increase in their brown adipose tissue specific UCP content. 9-cis-RA treatment also prevented the loss of UCP on cold deacclimation. To our knowledge, this is the first report of a stimulatory effect of retinoid compounds on UCP induction in vivo.
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