Sterol O-acyltransferase (SOAT/ACAT) activity is required to form cholesterol crystals in hepatocyte lipid droplets

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Excess unesterified (free) cholesterol can induce formation of cholesterol crystals in hepatocyte lipid droplets. Presence of such crystal distinguishes metabolic dysfunction associated steatohepatitis (MASH) from simple steatosis and may underlie its pathogenesis by causing cell damage that triggers liver inflammation. The mechanism linking cholesterol excess to its crystallization in lipid droplets is unclear. As cholesteryl esters localize to and accumulate in lipid droplets much more readily than free cholesterol, we investigated whether cholesterol esterification by sterol O-acyltransferase (SOAT), also known as acyl co-A cholesterol acyltransferase (ACAT) is required for hepatocyte lipid droplet crystal formation.


Cholesterol crystals were measured in cholesterol loaded Hep3B hepatocytes, RAW264.7 macrophages and mouse liver using polarizing light microscopy. We examined the effect of blocking SOAT activity on crystal formation and compared these results to cholesterol metabolism and the progression to intracellular crystal deposits.


Cholesterol loading of Hep3B cells caused robust levels of lipid droplet localized crystal formation in a dose- and time-dependent manner. Co-treatment with SOAT inhibitors and genetic ablation of SOAT1 blocked crystal formation. SOAT inhibitor also blocked crystal formation in low density lipoprotein (LDL) treated Hep3B cells, acetylated LDL treated RAW 264.7 macrophages, and in the liver of mice genetically predisposed to hepatic cholesterol overload and in mice fed a cholesterol enriched, MASH-promoting diet for 24 weeks.


SOAT1-mediated esterification may underlie cholesterol crystals associated with MASH by concentrating it in lipid droplets. These findings imply that inhibiting hepatocyte SOAT1 may alleviate cholesterol associated MASH. Moreover, that a lipid droplet localized cholesteryl ester hydrolase may be required for cholesterol crystal formation or, instead, that the crystals are composed of cholesteryl ester.

Funding Sources

Grants supporting this research were awarded to SBW from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). SBW was supported by a National New Investigator Award and McDonald Scholarship from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. UN and MA were supported by a James Regan Cardiology Research scholarship from University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine.

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