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Observing saturated fats in living cells
December 14, 2017, 2:57 pm

Doctors, nutritionists and researchers have known for long that saturated fats contribute to some of the leading causes of death in many countries. Yet, until now, they were unable to determine how or why excess saturated fats, such as those released from lard, are toxic to cells and cause a wide variety of lipid-related diseases, while unsaturated fats, such as those from fish and olive oil, can be protective.

Researchers at Columbia University have now developed a new microscopy technique that allows for the direct tracking of fatty acids after they have been absorbed into living cells. The technique involves replacing hydrogen atoms on fatty acids with their isotope, deuterium, which allows them to observe all molecules made from fatty acids inside living cells by using an advanced imaging technique called Stimulated Raman Scattering (SRS) microscopy.

What the researchers found using this technique could have significant impact on both the understanding and treatment of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Researchers found the cellular process of building the cell membrane from saturated fatty acids resulted in patches of hardened membrane in which molecules are ‘frozen’. Under healthy conditions, this membrane should be flexible and the molecules fluidic.

Elaborating on this, the researchers said that the stiff, straight, long chains of saturated fatty acids rigidify the lipid molecules and cause them to separate from the rest of the cell's membrane. Under their microscope, the team observed that those lipid molecules then accumulate in tightly-packed ‘islands’, or clusters, that do not move much. As more saturated fatty acids enter the cell, those islands grow in size, creating increasing inelasticity of the membrane and gradually damaging the entire cell.

Lipid molecules made from unsaturated fatty acids on the other hand bear a kink in their chains, which made it impossible for these lipid molecules to align closely with each other as saturated ones do. However, unlike saturated fatty acids, they are able to continue moving around freely rather than forming stationary clusters.

The researchers also found that by adding unsaturated fatty acids, the membrane islands frozen by saturated fatty acids, could be moved. This new mechanism could help explain the beneficial effects of unsaturated fatty acids and how unsaturated fats like those from fish oil can be protective in some lipid disorders.

Being able to visualize for the first time how fatty acids are contributing to lipid metabolic disease gives researchers the direct physical information needed to begin looking for effective ways to treat them.

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