The operation of metabolism determines species longevity, and in short-lived species this link tends to be highly variable in response to circumstances: exercise, diet, and consequences such as amounts and types of muscle and fat tissue. Longer lived species such as our own are, if anything, remarkable for the comparative lack of variation in life span across large differences in diet and the configuration of muscle and fat in our bodies. As researchers continue to map the interaction of metabolism and aging in laboratory mice, one interesting theme that has emerged is the importance of brown adipose tissue. In the open access paper noted here, the authors report that increasing the proportion of fat tissue that is brown rather than white can produce a 10-15% increase in mouse life span. They suggest this is mediated by SIRT3 activity and downstream effects on mitochondrial function.
The results here might be compared with a very intriguing study published last year in which researchers described what happens to metabolism and fat tissue in mice if their sense of smell is disabled. That resulted in healthier, metabolically superior mice characterized by a greater proportion of brown fat tissue. It built upon a range of past research suggesting that sense of smell plays a sizable role in the metabolic reaction to food. Unfortunately, for these and all other similar metabolic manipulations, we can't expect sizable results to transfer to humans and other long-lived mammals. For those interventions wherein researchers can directly compare mice and humans, the outcome on human life spans is much smaller, and supporting evidence strongly suggests that this holds up across the spectrum of everything involving diet, fat, and metabolism. The health benefits - distinct from effects on the pace of aging - may still be worth pursuing, if the costs are reasonable, however. Consider calorie restriction, for example.
There is also the point that a 10% life span effect in short-lived species is somewhere in the margin of error, and may well be hard to replicate. Looking back at the past few decades, 10% effects come and go in mice. One of the challenges is that an intervention may make mice choose to eat less for any number of reasons. The effects of calorie restriction are so large that they can swamp whatever else is going on in the study. The researchers here report carefully on the details of their many measures of metabolism, but one always has to read those details in order to understand whether they rule out a calorie restriction effect. That may not be the case here, for all that various aspects of the biochemistry under study match up well with what is presently known.
There are two distinctly different types of fat found in mammals: white adipose tissue (WAT), which is an essential site for triglyceride storage, and brown adipose tissue (BAT). The BAT is a protective mechanism of recent interest. BAT enhances energy metabolism and protects against cold exposure and obesity. A novel model to investigate the role of BAT in healthful aging and lifespan is the mouse model of the gene knockout (KO) of the regulator for G protein signaling 14 (RGS14), which has increased BAT.
Most prior work on RGS14 focused on its effects on embryonic development and on the visual cortex and central nervous system. The role of BAT in RGS14 KO and its ability to enhance lifespan and improve metabolism, the focus of the present investigation, have never been explored. To confirm the essential role of BAT in mediating the protection in the RGS14 KO, we transplanted BAT from RGS14 KO to wild type (WT) mice, a technique that is equivalent to a BAT KO, as it disrupts the salutary phenotype in the RGS14 KO and transplants these features to their WT, receiving the BAT.
Lifespan was monitored in the mice, and we observed significantly longer lifespan of RGS14 KO vs. WT mice. Median lifespan was increased by 4 months from 24 to 28 months. Median lifespan and maximum lifespan were increased to a similar extent in females and males. The older RGS14 KO mice were also protected from aging-induced atrophy of the thymus. It is also important that BAT protects against the aging phenotype, for example, graying and loss of hair, dermatitis, and hunched back, all of which were observed in old WT mice, but not observed in old RGS14 KO mice or in old WT mice, which received BAT transplants.
RGS14 KO mice had improved body composition compared to WT mice. RGS14 KO mice had lower body weight and WAT index (% of white fat to total body weight). The BAT index (% of brown fat to total body weight) was increased in RGS14 KO by 77% compared to their WT littermates. From RT-qPCR analysis to profile changes in BAT transcript levels, we found that BAT-specific markers were significantly upregulated. As healthful longevity and BAT are known to improve metabolic function, we assessed metabolism through indirect calorimetry and demonstrated greater oxygen consumption in RGS14 KO than WT mice.
In the RGS14 KO, SIRT1 was downregulated, while SIRT3 was upregulated. To confirm the role of the SIRT3 mechanism, a double KO (RGS14 KO X SIRT3 KO) was studied. The RGS14 X SIRT3 double KO mice lost their improved metabolism, pointing to SIRT3 as a mediator of the beneficial effects on metabolic regulation in the RGS14 KO animals. Therefore, RGS14 deficiency promotes increased SIRT3 activity, not only by increasing its expression levels, but also by increasing the availability of NAD+, an important cofactor required for sirtuin function. SIRT3 activation, in turn, leads to improved mitochondrial biogenesis, providing the molecular basis for healthful aging in the RGS14 KO animals.