Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress & Lipid Metabolism

Research Article Endoplasmic reticulum stress is a process that is involved in the development of many diseases.

About the authors

Olga (Olya) Vvedenskaya and
Henri M Deda
Olga (Olya) Vvedenskaya
Sci. Communications Officer

Dr. Dr. Olya Vvedenskaya studied medicine, and further obtained her PhD in the field of molecular oncology. She loves to deliver scientific messages in a clear and accessible manner.

Henri M Deda
Communications Officer

Henri Deda holds a degree in Molecular Bioengineering. He is spirited to discover what scientists are interested in and to provide concise answers.


Lipin-1 regulation of phospholipid synthesis…

He et al. | The FASEB Journal (2017)

TREM2-dependent lipid droplet biogenesis…

Gouna et al. | JEM (2021)

Reducing lipid bilayer stress…

Pérez-Martí, et al. | eLife (2022)

Activation of the endoplasmic reticulum…

Givord et al. | npj Vaccines (2018)

Mouse lipidomics reveals inherent flexibility…

Surma et al. | SciRep (2021)

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• Endoplasmic reticulum is responsible for the protein synthesis, folding, and transport
• Various extrinsic and intrinsic factors can cause ER stress
• Unfolded protein response is developed during the ER stress

Olga (Olya) Vvedenskaya and
Henri M Deda

THE endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is a cellular organelle that is mainly responsible for the folding of newly synthesized protein molecules and transporting these properly folded proteins in vesicles to the Golgi apparatus. The rough endoplasmic reticulum is largely involved in protein synthesis, while smooth endoplasmic reticulum is generally used for the synthesis and storage of lipids.

ER stress is a chronic disturbance process that impacts the ER metabolism and homeostasis. Researchers started to investigate ER stress in the year 1968 and more and more research has been done in this field each year. The number of publications increased from one paper in 1968 to over 3000 by mid December 2022.

The number of annual publications which mention ER stress began to continuously increase from about 100 publications in 2000 to about 3,000 publications in 2020.

Number of ER stress publications since 1968: The number of annual publications which mention ER stress began to continuously increase from about 100 publications in 2000 to about 3,000 publications in 2020.

ER stress is characterized by the accumulation of abnormal proteins, leading to the disbalance of the protein folding capacity and slowing its speed. Since only correctly folded proteins are transported to the Golgi apparatus, unfolded proteins accumulate in ER and cause ER stress. Microenvironmental conditions such as hypoxia, cell-intrinsic metabolic alterations, oncogenic stress, and certain medical interventions can lead to ER stress.

An infographic showing a variety of triggers for misfolded proteins such as microenvironmental conditions, cell-intrinsic oncogenic stress, cell-intrinsic metabolic alterations, and therapy which then lead to ER stress in the endoplasmic reticulum. The consequences of ER stress are autophagy, cellular reprogramming and adaption, or cell death.

The unfolded protein response (UPR) is a cellular response to ER stress, that evolved to protect the cell from ER stress. Upon activation, the UPR aims to restore normal cell function by pausing protein synthesis, degrading misfolded proteins, and activating processes to support protein folding. If these goals are not achieved within a certain time span, the ER stress triggers the cells to undergo apoptosis or, best case scenario, cellular reprogramming, and adaptation.

ER stress can activate three different intracellular signal transduction pathways: protein kinase RNA‐like ER kinase (PERK), activating transcription factor 6 (ATF6), and inositol‐requiring enzyme 1 alpha (IRE1α); they are collectively termed the unfolded protein response. Certain changes in lipid metabolism can trigger UPR, for example, phospholipid metabolism aberrations in the ER or the exposure to saturated fatty acids activate the IRE1α pathway.

An infographic depicting the pathway from ER stress to apoptosis. Phospholipid metabolism aberrations in the Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) activate the IRE1α pathway, and thus the Unfolded Protein Response (UPR). If the ER stress persists the UPR remains activated. This initiates apoptosis, programmed cell death.

The effect of UPR on lipid metabolism depends on the UPR activation mechanism. Briefly, IRE1α signaling affects lipolysis, triacylglycerol (TAG) synthesis, fatty acid (FA) elongation and desaturation, and lipogenesis. The PERK pathway also affects FA elongation and desaturation, lipogenesis and, additionally, mevalonate pathway. ATF6 also affects lipogenesis, mevalonate pathway and, finally, FA oxidation. ER stress is emerging as a cause of drastic lipid metabolism changes, that leads to disturbance of processes like remyelination or immune response to vaccines, and disease development, for example, breast cancer and diabetic kidney disease.

ER stress and breast cancer

ER stress can also be used to the benefit of health. For example, LPIN1, the gene encoding the enzyme lipin-1, is significantly upregulated in triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), and the overexpression of LPIN1 correlates highly with poor patient survival. Researchers down-regulated lipin-1 production in triple-negative breast cancer cells to investigate the role of the enzyme in breast cancer phospholipid metabolism and related ER stress.

An infographic depicting the biochemical pathways of phospholipid synthesis in mammalian cells. The gene LPIN1 encoding the enzyme lipin-1 is highlighted.

General pathway for phospholipid synthesis: The biochemical pathways of phospholipid synthesis in mammalian cells. The enzyme lipin-1 is highlighted.
He et al., FASEB Journal (2017), doi: 10.1096/fj.201601353R

The downregulation of lipin-1 led to dysregulation of phospholipid metabolism in the ER of TNBC cells, thus constantly activating the IRE1α signaling pathway and the UPR. Ultimately, the prolonged ER stress resulted in apoptosis and death of the triple negative breast cancer cells.

Scientific graphs presenting a comparison of the LPIN1 gene readout levels in TNBC and non-TNBC breast cancers, and the correlation of high LPIN1 gene readout with shorter overall survival of patients with TNBC.

LPIN1 expression in TNBC: A Comparison of the LPIN1 gene readout levels in TNBC and non-TNBC breast cancers. B High LPIN1 gene readout correlates with shorter overall survival of patients with TNBC.
He et al., FASEB Journal (2017), doi: 10.1096/fj.201601353R

This effect was confirmed in a mouse model, showing that lipin-1 is critical to maintaining ER homeostasis and thus tumor growth in TNBC – even in vivo. This demonstrates that targeting phospholipid metabolism may be a therapeutic strategy to prolong ER stress, thus potentially helping patients with TNBC, and potentially in other cancers.

ER stress, lipid droplets, and remyelination

One of the processes ER stress is involved in is lipid droplet formation during the remyelination process in demyelinating diseases like multiple sclerosis.

Under normal conditions, during the clearance of myelin debris the cholesterol (unlike other lipids) cannot be degraded by lysosomal enzymes and is transferred from late endosomes to ER. The ER, in its turn, cannot cope with the excessive amount of free cholesterol, which is why free cholesterol is being esterified into cholesteryl esters and stored in lipid droplets.

An infographic visualizing TREM2 WT and TREM2 knockout microglia dealing with cholesterol from the myelin debris following myelin injury. TREM2 knockout microglia cells cannot process cholesterol which causes ER stress in these microglia.

Cholesterol exposure is required in microglia macrophages for a proper myelin debris uptake. When this buffering mechanism of lipid droplet formation is defective, microglia phagocytes do not resolve from demyelinating lesions, and the regenerative response during remyelination fails.

An unntargeted lipidomics analysis of WT and TREM2 KO cells cultured in serum-free media or with myelin for 8 or 24 h. B and C Analysis of ER stress by quantification of phosphorylated eIF2α (B) and phosphorylated JNK (C), measured by Western blot. **, P < 0.01; ***, P < 0.001.

Comparison of lipid profiles in TREM2-KO and WT cells and ER stress presence: A Untargeted lipidomics analysis of WT and TREM2 KO cells cultured in serum-free media or with myelin for 8 or 24 h. B and C Analysis of ER stress by quantification of phosphorylated eIF2α (B) and phosphorylated JNK (C), measured by Western blot. **, P < 0.01; ***, P < 0.001.
Gouna et al., Journal of Experimental Medicine (2021), doi:10.1084/jem.20210227

Phagocytes with the impaired myelin debris uptake are able to internalize myelin debris but fail to process it and become exposed to the lipotoxicity of free cholesterol that builds up with time. Consequently, cholesterol-induced cellular stress develops, and the evidence of ER stress in myelin debris–loaded impaired phagocytes is observed. This leads to cells’ inability to resolve innate immune inflammation and to support remyelination.

ER stress, diabetes, and kidney disease

The nephron’s work includes two steps: first, the glomerulus filters the blood producing ultrafiltrate, and then the tubule returns essential substances to the blood and removes waste. During blood filtering, most of the solutes, water, glucose, and amino acids are reabsorbed in proximal tubule cells (PTC). Some of these processes may be affected in case the kidney gets damaged during diabetes development; ER stress plays a crucial role in it.

One of the ways kidney functional units can get damaged during diabetes is due to excessive accumulation of lipids leading to lipotoxicity which is one of main drivers of kidney disease progression.

Schematic Representation Of Nephron Indicating The Flow Direction Of Blood And Ultrafiltrate

In particular ER stress advances in response to dietary palmitic acid accumulation in renal epithelial cells. ER stress can be activated by several different pathways, and all ER stress response pathways are activated by dietary palmitic acid. Adding oleic acid to the cell media reversed the process and rescued the cells from ER stress. Interestingly, the protective effects of oleic acid are specific for palmitic acid-induced ER lipid bilayer stress.

Further, the authors evaluated if increased triglycerides (TAG) synthesis leads to the accumulation of lipids in lipid droplets and measured the number and volume of lipid droplets in renal epithelial cells under treatment with various fatty acids. It was shown, that mono-unsaturated fatty acids enhanced the formation of triacylglycerols and, subsequentially, ER-derived lipid droplets.

The Formation Of Lipid Droplets Upon Treatment With Various Fatty Acids

The formation of lipid droplets (LDs) upon treatment with various fatty acids: A LD number and B LD average volume in renal epithelial cells treated for 16 hr with palmitic, oleic, and palmitic + oleic acid. Data are presented as the mean + all values; *p<0.05, **p<0.01, ***p<0.001, ****p<0.0001; Kruskal–Wallis plus Dunn’s multiple comparisons test; 10 cells per field from three fields were analyzed for three independent biological replicates.
Pérez-Martí, et al. Life 11:e74391. (2022) 10.7554/eLife.74391

Lipid metabolism-wise, the oleic acid treatment led to the strong formation of triacylglycerols, and palmitic acid treatment led to increased levels of precursors of triacylglycerols, such as diacylglycerols, phosphatidic acid, and lysophosphatidic acid. The addition of oleic to palmitic acids enhanced the formation of triacylglycerols, leading to reduced accumulation of diacylglycerols, phosphatidic acid, and lysophosphatidic acid. Oleic acid also decreased the concentration of free fatty acids detected in cells, most likely due to stimulated triacylglycerol synthesis.

These results once again showed that short fatty acids cause ER stress and impair triacylglycerol production in cultured cells. Overall, the set of mice and cell culture experiments evaluated the disturbances in triacylglycerol synthesis as a key mechanism driving lipotoxicity in diabetic kidney disease.

ER stress and adjuvants in vaccines

Vaccines train the immune system to recognize pathogens by introducing antigens to the body to trigger an immune response. Modern vaccine development can count on agents that enhance the impact of the antigens in the human body by triggering a stronger immune reaction with fewer antigens, called adjuvants. Adjuvants are the key component to ensure even the smallest doses of pathogens trigger a long-term immune response in the body.

A graphic representation of how vaccines work from introducing safe amounts of antigens to the body to developing antibodies for future infections.

Lipid-based adjuvants play an important role in the efficiency of vaccines. By applying lipidomics, researchers studied a specific lipid-based adjuvant AS03’s effect on lipid metabolism. and changes in lipid composition triggered by the adjuvant in a moue model organism. It was discovered that the lipid metabolism remodeling initiated by AS03 leads to ER stress, thus activating IRE1α and resulting in an upregulation of genes related to inflammation.

AS03 induces the rapid formation of lipid droplets in macrophages: Activation of the endoplasmic reticulum stress sensor IRE1α by the vaccine adjuvant AS03 contributes to its immunostimulatory properties.

AS03 induces the rapid formation of lipid droplets in macrophages: Activation of the endoplasmic reticulum stress sensor IRE1α by the vaccine adjuvant AS03 contributes to its immunostimulatory properties.
Givord et al., npj Vaccines (2018), 10.1038/s41541-018-0058-4

The lipidomics analysis demonstrated that AS03 affects cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism of macrophage cells in lymph nodes, showing a decrease of cholesterol but an increase of phosphatidylcholine lipids, a class of phospholipids which is mainly synthesized in the endoplasmic reticulum.

Ultimately, this increases cytokine production and induces a protective immune response, the reason for the immuno-stimulatory properties of the lipid-based adjuvant AS03. These findings pave the way for the development of new lipid-based adjuvants in vaccines.

How to use Lipidomics to understand ER stress

Quantitative lipidomics analysis allows not only to detect the changes in lipid metabolism triggering ER stress and UPR, but also to identify of the subsequent changes in lipid metabolism in a case when the ER stress resolves in autophagy, apoptosis, or cell reprogramming. Pinpointing these changes is essential to get deep insights into relevant diseases’ development and progression, thus allowing scientists to work on treatment and prevention as well.

Lipotype Lipidomics technology can be used to characterize the lipidomics changes triggered by the ER stress in patient samples, tissue from model organisms, and in vitro samples. These data can provide insight into a wide variety of diseases, including neurodegenerative diseases, various cancers, and metabolic diseases.

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