Phytanic acid (3,7,11,15-tetramethylhexadecanoic acid) is a phytol-derived branched-chain fatty acid present in dietary products. Phytanic acid increased uncoupling protein-1 (UCP1) mRNA expression in brown adipocytes differentiated in culture. Phytanic acid induced the expression of the UCP1 gene promoter, which was enhanced by co-transfection with a retinoid X receptor (RXR) expression vector but not with other expression vectors driving peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR) α, PPARγ or a form of RXR devoid of ligand-dependent sensitivity. The effect of phytanic acid on the UCP1 gene required the 5′ enhancer region of the gene and the effects of phytanic acid were mediated in an additive manner by three binding sites for RXR. Moreover, phytanic acid activates brown adipocyte differentiation: long-term exposure of brown preadipocytes to phytanic acid promoted the acquisition of the brown adipocyte morphology and caused a co-ordinate induction of the mRNAs for gene markers of brown adipocyte differentiation, such as UCP1, adipocyte lipid-binding protein aP2, lipoprotein lipase, the glucose transporter GLUT4 or subunit II of cytochrome c oxidase. In conclusion, phytanic acid is a natural product of phytol metabolism that activates brown adipocyte thermogenic function. It constitutes a potential nutritional signal linking dietary status to adaptive thermogenesis.

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