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Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol. 2011;76:121-7. doi: 10.1101/sqb.2011.76.010447. Epub 2011 Jul 22.

Surviving starvation: essential role of the ghrelin-growth hormone axis.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, Texas 75390-9046, USA. joe.goldstein@utsouthwestern.edu

Abstract

After brief starvation, vertebrates maintain blood glucose by releasing fatty acids from adipose tissue. The fatty acids provide energy for gluconeogenesis in liver and are taken up by muscle, sparing glucose. After prolonged starvation, fat stores are depleted, yet blood glucose can be maintained at levels sufficient to preserve life. Using a new mouse model, we demonstrate that survival after prolonged starvation requires ghrelin, an octanoylated peptide hormone that stimulates growth hormone (GH) secretion. We studied wild-type mice and mice lacking ghrelin as a result of knockout of GOAT, the enzyme that attaches octanoate to ghrelin. Mice were fed 40% of their normal intake for 7 d. Fat stores in both lines of mice became depleted after 4 d. On day 7, mice were fasted for 23 h. In wild-type mice, ghrelin and GH rose massively, and blood sugar was maintained at ~60 mg/dL. In Goat(-/-) mice, ghrelin was undetectable and GH failed to rise appropriately. Blood sugar declined to ~20 mg/dL, and the animals were moribund. Infusion of ghrelin or GH prevented hypoglycemia. Our results support the following sequence: (1) Starvation lowers blood glucose; (2) glucose-sensing neurons respond by activating sympathetic neurons; (3) norepinephrine, released in the stomach, stimulates ghrelin secretion; (4) ghrelin releases GH, which maintains blood glucose. Thus, ghrelin lies at the center of a hormonal response that permits mice to survive an acute fast superimposed on chronic starvation.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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