Intact vitamin A transport is critical for cold-mediated adipose tissue browning and thermogenesis

Anna Fenzl, Oana Cristina Kulterer, Katrin Spirk, Goran Mitulović, ... Florian W. Kiefer


Transformation of white into brown fat (“browning”) reduces obesity in many preclinical models and holds great promise as a therapeutic concept in metabolic disease. Vitamin A metabolites (retinoids) have been linked to thermogenic programming of adipose tissue; however, the physiologic importance of systemic retinoid transport for adipose tissue browning and adaptive thermogenesis is unknown.


We performed cold exposure studies in mice and humans and used a genetic model of defective vitamin A transport, the retinol binding protein deficient (Rbp−/-) mouse, to study the effects of cooling on systemic vitamin A and the relevance of intact retinoid transport on cold-induced adipose tissue browning.


We show that cold stimulation in mice and humans leads to an increase in circulating retinol and its plasma transporter, Rbp. In Rbp−/- mice, thermogenic programming of adipocytes and oxidative mitochondrial function are dramatically impaired in subcutaneous white fat, which renders Rbp−/- mice more cold-sensitive. In contrast, retinol stimulation in primary human adipocytes promotes thermogenic gene expression and mitochondrial respiration. In humans, cold-mediated retinol increase is associated with a shift in oxidative substrate metabolism suggestive of higher lipid utilisation.


Systemic vitamin A levels are regulated by cold exposure in mice and humans, and intact retinoid transport is essential for cold-induced adipose tissue browning and adaptive thermogenesis.