News / Edmonton

Scientists make illuminating discovery on how lack of sunlight could affect winter weight gain

University of Alberta professor has discovered that fat cells actually respond to light, something that was previously unknown

Peter Light has discovered that human fat cells respond to sunlight.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

Peter Light has discovered that human fat cells respond to sunlight.

It would appear winter isn’t only responsible for your blues, but could play a part in gaining weight as well.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered that the fat cells beneath our skin actually respond to light, which affects our metabolism.

Before fat cells were only known to store extra energy and nothing else.

“Basically what we discovered is the fat cells beneath the skin have a light sensitive pathway in them, so they can actually respond to some of the wavelengths that can pass through on a sunny day,” said Peter Light, professor of pharmacology and director of Alberta Diabetes Institute.

“Therefore, I suggest that how our fat cells respond to being in sunlight may have important implications for reducing fat storage in summer months.”

Light, whose name is an ironic coincidence (his original field of research is pharmacology), said the discovery was rather “serendipitous” as two years ago they were working on a different project.

He said they were introducing light-sensitive proteins to fat cells to see if it affected production of insulin.

Instead they found that fat cells that didn’t have the proteins injected still responded to light anyway.

“We looked at the literature and we found nothing in there about fat cells being responsive to light so we decided to pursue it because we saw the potential importance of this research,” he said.

The discovery being fairly new, Light said they still need time to figure out the exact implications of this new piece of information.

Dr. Jan Hux, president of Diabetes Canada, said a discovery like this is an "encouraging" start on how they look at obesity and obesity-related diseases.

“Any factor that’s going to help people manage that more effectively is a welcome addition to how we look at the disease," she said.

Light also pointed out that so far they have only completed the study on tissues (some which were human) in the lab. There is still research to be done to figure exactly how much exposure to sunlight is needed to activate the light sensitive pathway without risking cancer.

“I would not recommend people lay out in the sun for this sort of effect,” Light said.

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