1. Adipose tissue mass is dependent on both the average volume and the number of its constituent adipocytes. Significant alteration in body mass involves alteration in both adipocyte volume and number.
2. Increases in adipocyte number occur via replication and differentiation of preadipocytes, a process which occurs throughout life. Decreases in adipocyte number occur via preadipocyte and adipocyte apoptosis, and possibly adipocyte dedifferentiation.
3. Overall regulation of adipose mass involves endocrine, paracrine and possibly autocrine systems. Hypothalamic centres appear to control appetite, metabolic rate and activity levels in a co-ordinated manner. Within the hypothalamus, known weight regulatory molecules include glucagon-like peptide-1, neuropeptide Y and leptin. Leptin is a major afferent signal from adipose tissue to the hypothalamus, providing information on overall adipose tissue mass. However, the precise means by which the hypothalamus signals to adipose tissue is less well understood.
4. In adipose tissue, known molecular regulators of adipose cell number include insulin, ligands for the peroxisome proliferator activated receptor-γ, retinoids, corticosteroids and tumour necrosis factor-α. The net effect of these and other regulators is to effect a concerted alteration in adipocyte volume and number. This review largely focuses on the control of fat cell acquisition and loss and the influence of these processes on adipose tissue mass and regional distribution.