Our group has recently demonstrated (Gesta, S., Simon, M., Rey, A., Sibrac, D., Girard, A., Lafontan, M., Valet, P., and Saulnier-Blache, J. S. (2002) J. Lipid Res. 43, 904-910) the presence, in adipocyte conditioned-medium, of a soluble lysophospholipase D-activity (LPLDact) involved in synthesis of the bioactive phospholipid lysophosphatidic acid (LPA). In the present report, LPLDact was purified from 3T3F442A adipocyte-conditioned medium and identified as the type II ecto-nucleotide pyrophosphatase phosphodiesterase, autotaxin (ATX). A unique ATX cDNA was cloned from 3T3F442A adipocytes, and its recombinant expression in COS-7 cells led to extracellular release of LPLDact. ATX mRNA expression was highly up-regulated during adipocyte differentiation of 3T3F442A-preadipocytes. This up-regulation was paralleled by the ability of newly differentiated adipocytes to release LPLDact and LPA. Differentiation-dependent up-regulation of ATX expression was also observed in a primary culture of mouse preadipocytes. Treatment of 3T3F442A-preadipocytes with concentrated conditioned medium from ATX-expressing COS-7 cells led to an increase in cell number as compared with concentrated conditioned medium from ATX non-expressing COS-7 cells. The specific effect of ATX on preadipocyte proliferation was completely suppressed by co-treatment with a LPA-hydrolyzing phospholipase, phospholipase B. Finally, ATX expression was found in mature adipocytes isolated from mouse adipose tissue and was substantially increased in genetically obese-diabetic db/db mice when compared with their lean siblings. In conclusion, the present work shows that ATX is responsible for the LPLDact released by adipocytes and exerts a paracrine control on preadipocyte growth via an LPA-dependent mechanism. Up-regulations of ATX expression with adipocyte differentiation and genetic obesity suggest a possible involvement of this released protein in the development of adipose tissue and obesity-associated pathologies.