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Uncoupling proteins: their roles in adaptive thermogenesis and substrate metabolism reconsidered

  • Abdul G. Dulloo (a1) and Sonia Samec (a1)

During the past few years, there have been two major developments, if not revolutions, in the field of energy balance and weight regulation. The first at the molecular level, which was catalysed by developments in DNA screening technology together with the mapping of the human genome, has been the tremendous advances made in the identification of molecules that play a role in the control of food intake and metabolic rate. The second, at the systemic level, which centered upon the use of modern technologies or more robust analytical techniques for assessing human energy expenditure in response to starvation and overfeeding, has been the publication of several papers providing strong evidence that adaptive thermogenesis plays a much more important role in the regulation of body weight and body composition than previously thought. Within these same few years, several new members of the mitochondrial carrier protein family have been identified in a variety of tissues and organs. All apparently possess uncoupling properties in genetically-modified systems, with two of them (uncoupling protein (UCP) 2 and UCP3) being expressed in adipose tissues and skeletal muscles, which are generally recognised as important sites for variations in thermogenesis and/or in substrate oxidation. Considered as breakthrough discoveries, the cloning of these genes has generated considerable optimism for rapid advances in our molecular understanding of adaptive thermogenesis, and for the identification of new targets for pharmacological management of obesity and cachexia. The present paper traces first, from a historical perspective, the landmark events in the field of thermogenesis that led to the identification of these genes encoding candidate UCP, and then addresses the controversies and on-going debate about their physiological importance in adaptive thermogenesis, in lipid oxidation or in oxidative stress. The general conclusion is that UCP2 and UCP3 may have distinct primary functions, with UCP3 implicated in regulating the flux of lipid substrates across the mitochondria and UCP2 in the control of mitochondrial generation of reactive oxygen species. The distinct functions of these two UCP1 homologues have been incorporated in a conceptual model to illustrate how UCP2 and UCP3 may act in concert in the overall regulation of lipid oxidation concomitant to the prevention of lipid-induced oxidative damage.

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Corresponding author
*Corresponding author: Dr Abdul G. Dulloo, fax +41 26 300 97 34, email
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