Instead of storing excess energy from food in lumps and bumps throughout the body - like its well-known sister, white fat - brown fat helps burn incoming calories.
This mechanism enables small and hibernating mammals, which can't shiver, to stay warm in cold temperatures. And it enables newborn humans, who have yet to develop layers of white fat, to stay warm after exiting the stable confines of the womb.
Until recently, only these two types of creatures were thought to even have brown fat.
Now researchers have found that adults don't, in fact, lose all of their brown fat to the creeping ubiquitousness of white fat; with that finding, they've launched a scramble to discover how the substance's fat-burning abilities could be harnessed for weight loss.
If brown fat is unleashed, it could potentially "tickle" the metabolism enough to make weight loss easier and more manageable, said Sven Enerback, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and one of the scientists who discovered that brown fat persists in adults.
Enerback calculates that inserting only 50 to 100 grams of activated brown fat into a person could significantly increase their energy metabolism and eliminate 10 pounds of white fat a year.
Researchers are exploring various avenues through which to safely activate brown fat. It's possible cold temperatures may play a role.
Already they've learned in experiments exposing a variety of people to cold temperatures that healthy people tend to have more active brown fat than their less healthy, older or more overweight counterparts, said Dr. Aaron Cypess of the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. But researchers are not sure whether the brown fat helped lead to better health or whether people in better health have more brown fat.
Recently, a team of researchers led by Dr. Bruce Spiegelman, a professor of cell biology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, was able to increase brown fat stores in mice by turning immature muscle cells into brown fat cells, then transplanting these cells into adult mice.
Their findings were published July 29 in the journal Nature.
The brown fat made by the research team was able to actively burn off incoming caloric energy, Spiegelman said. Though the study did not demonstrate whether the animals lost weight, he said, the researchers' next step will be to implant the engineered brown fat into obese mice to observe whether or not they get thinner.