Fighting Fat with DiffEQ (Math)


A section of adipose tissue (fat). Makes you think twice about that cheeseburger, doesn't it?


Sitting somewhere in the heart of Columbus, Ohio, a group of nerds are in a race against time. They sit at white boards trying to figure out extremely complex ordinary differential equations. They sit in meetings with biochemists attempting to understand the underlying interactions of biological chemicals and signals. They sit after work in a big circle playing Dungeons and Dragons before hitting up their online girlfriends and a large pizza from Catfish Biff’s.

They sit.

They get fat.

Unless, that is, they win their race against time and develop a model that accurately describes how fat cells are born.

Okay, so that bit about Dungeons and Dragons is completely made up. For all I know, the mathematicians in the latest study from Ohio State’s Mathematical Bioscience Institute are ultra-marathon runners and iron man triathletes. But the first bit is true.

Science is just beginning to understand the qualities and functions of white adipose tissue, i.e., fat. Once upon a time, people believed fat was simply a way for the body to store energy in the form of fatty acids in lipids. Since then, though, fat has been shown to regulate metabolism, feeding behaviors, cardiovascular functions and reproduction, among others. While it is necessary for healthy human function, too much fat can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and has been linked to some cancers and arteriosclerosis. Understanding how and why fat builds in the body is a very important health issue that will only gain importance as America continues to accelerate its obesity trend.

And think of all the money that could be made by selling diet pills that actually work.


Pretty standard graphical representation of how every state in the union is getting more obese over time.


But in order to understand how fat is created, scientists must first describe the process mathematically in order to create computer models and simulations. Once a fully-described, fully-functioning model is completed, then they can begin to attack fat accumulation at its source by attacking the mechanisms that make it proliferate.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, four scientists from the Ohio State University have laid the foundations of the mathematical model of how fat cells become, well, fat cells. Just like every other cell in our bodies, fat cells don’t just magically appear. There are countless genes, proteins, enzymes, environmental factors and other influences that cause a fibroblast* and certain types of stem cells to turn into a fat cell, and these guys are trying to count them.

*I’ll save you the time. Wikipedia says a fibroblast is type of cell that synthesizes the extracellular matrix and collagen, and structural framework for animal tissues, and plays a critical role in wound healing.


The top line shows the interactions of the chemicals identified in this study. Those aren't symbols for their names, those are actually what they're called. The bottom is the set of differential equations that describe the system above. Piece of pizza, no?


But you’ve got to start somewhere, so the team chose to start with the dynamic interplay of two transcription factors (proteins) with names that involve symbols that I doubt WordPress will let me use. And let’s face it, you wouldn’t understand the names anyways. I sure as hell don’t.

What they’ve created is a very simple model, relatively speaking. The real process of how precursors to fat cells decide whether to make more of themselves, become dormant or turn into fat cells, is wildly complicated and not anywhere near completely understood. This first step, however, has proven successful in predicting which decision certain precursors to fat cells in mice make. And those predictions are the first step in figuring out how to stop said cells from turning into excess flab.

And like The Man* said, “To change the world; starts with one step; however small; the first step is hardest of all.”

*The Man = Dave Matthews.

For more information and a different take, check out Ohio State’s press release or this article from


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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