Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Planary Lecture

The biology of obesity

Paul Trayhurna1

a1 Neuroendocrine & Obesity Biology Unit, Liverpool Centre for Nutritional Genomics, School of Clinical Sciences, University of Liverpool, University Clinical Departments, Duncan Building, Liverpool L69 3GA, UK


Obesity is a multidisciplinary area, the ‘biology’ of which encompasses: (1) the fundamental mechanisms of energy balance and its regulation; (2) the biological basis for the development of obesity; (3) adipose tissue function; (4) the biological description of the obese state; (5) the pathological consequences of obesity; (6) the physiological basis for treatment strategies. At a mechanistic level, important developments in recent years include the identification of novel neuroendocrine factors in the control of appetite (such as cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript, the orexins, the endocannabinoids) and the discovery of new peripheral signals (such as leptin, ghrelin). Despite the identification of additional uncoupling proteins (UCP2, UCP3), mitochondrial uncoupling in brown adipose tissue through UCP1 remains the only major mechanism for adaptive thermogenesis. White adipose tissue (WAT) has now moved centre stage in energy balance and obesity research, and there are three main reasons: (1) it is the organ which defines obesity; (2) it is the source of a critical endocrine signal in the control of body weight; (3) it secretes a range of diverse protein factors, termed adipokines, some of which are directly implicated in the pathologies associated with obesity. WAT is now recognised as a key endocrine organ, communicating both with the brain and peripheral tissues through the adipokines. Obesity is characterised by mild inflammation, and WAT may be the main locus of the inflammatory state, producing cytokines, chemokines, acute-phase proteins and angiogenic factors. It has been suggested that inflammation in obesity is principally an adaptive response to hypoxia in clusters of adipocytes within the expanding adipose mass.