The Insulin signaling pathway couples growth, development and lifespan to nutritional conditions. Here, we demonstrate a function for the Drosophila lipoprotein LTP in conveying information about dietary lipid composition to the brain to regulate Insulin signaling. When yeast lipids are present in the diet, free calcium levels rise in Blood Brain Barrier glial cells. This induces transport of LTP across the Blood Brain Barrier by two LDL receptor-related proteins: LRP1 and Megalin. LTP accumulates on specific neurons that connect to cells that produce Insulin-like peptides, and induces their release into the circulation. This increases systemic Insulin signaling and the rate of larval development on yeast-containing food compared with a plant-based food of similar nutritional content.
How does an animal sense if it is well nourished or not, and then regulate its metabolism appropriately? This process largely relies on the animal's body deciphering signals that that are transmitted between different organs in the form of molecules and hormones. Many animals—ranging from insects to mammals (including humans)—also use their brains to sense and decipher these nutritional signals.
A signaling pathway involving the hormone insulin controls how various different animals grow and develop—and how long they will live—based on these animals' food intake. Insulin is produced in mammals by an organ called the pancreas. But in the fruit fly Drosophila, this hormone is produced by cells within different tissues, including the insect’s brain.
The fruit fly is used to study many biological processes because it is easy to work with in a laboratory. Insulin-producing cells make and release insulin-like molecules into the insect's hemolymph (a blood-like fluid) in response to sugar and to other nutrients (which are detected via molecules generated in a fruit fly organ called the fat body). The fat body produces lipophorin, a protein which carries fat molecules in the hemolymph, and which is known to be able to move from the hemolymph to the brain and accumulate within the brain. The fat body also produces lipid transfer protein (or LTP), which transfers fats absorbed or made within the insect's gut onto lipophorin, and can also unload fat molecules to other insect cells. If LTP can also enter the brain, and what it might do there, was unclear.
Brankatschk et al.now discover that LTP can cross the ‘blood brain barrier’ in fruit fly larvae and can accumulate over time on their insulin-producing cells and the neurons in direct contact with these cells. This accumulation depends on the flies’ diet: flies fed a diet made from yeast cells accumulated LTP on these neurons, while those fed only on sugar and proteins did not.
Furthermore Brankatschk et al. found that when they switched flies from a yeast-based to a plant-based diet, the larvae grew more slowly and the flies lived longer. Both of the diets contained abundant calories and nutrients, but contained slightly different kinds of fat molecules. The fly larvae on the plant-based diet also accumulated less LTP on their insulin-pathway neurons, and insulin signaling was reduced.
Branskatschk et al. also found that fat molecules from the yeast-based diet activated the cells of the blood brain barrier, and that this encouraged LTP to be transported the brain. Blocking LTP from crossing the blood brain barrier reduced insulin signaling, slowed the growth of the fly larvae, and extended the lifespan of the flies.
These findings of Brankatschk et al. thus reveal that fat-containing molecules carry information about specific nutrients to the brain. The extent to which these mechanisms operate in other animals—such as mammals—remains to be explored.