While the etiology of type 2 diabetes is multifaceted, the induction of insulin resistance in skeletal muscle is a key phenomenon, and impairments in insulin signaling in this tissue directly contribute to hyperglycemia. Despite the lack of clarity regarding the specific mechanisms whereby insulin signaling is impaired, the key role of a high lipid environment within skeletal muscle has been recognized for decades. Many of the proposed mechanisms leading to the attenuation of insulin signaling — namely the accumulation of reactive lipids and the pathological production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), appear to rely on this high lipid environment. Mitochondrial biology is a central component to these processes, as these organelles are almost exclusively responsible for the oxidation and metabolism of lipids within skeletal muscle and are a primary source of ROS production. Classic studies have suggested that reductions in skeletal muscle mitochondrial content and/or function contribute to lipid-induced insulin resistance; however, in recent years the role of mitochondria in the pathophysiology of insulin resistance has been gradually re-evaluated to consider the biological effects of alterations in mitochondrial content. In this respect, while reductions in mitochondrial content are not required for the induction of insulin resistance, mechanisms that increase mitochondrial content are thought to enhance mitochondrial substrate sensitivity and submaximal adenosine diphosphate (ADP) kinetics. Thus, this review will describe the central role of a high lipid environment in the pathophysiology of insulin resistance, and present both classic and contemporary views of how mitochondrial biology contributes to insulin resistance in skeletal muscle.

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