Lipids

What you’ll learn to do: Illustrate different types of lipids and relate their structure to their role in biological systems

Fats and oils are probably the type of lipid that you’re most familiar with in your everyday life. The word fat typically brings up a negative picture in our minds. In diets, we’re advised to stay away from fatty foods. However, our bodies require some fat in order to survive. There are also other lipids essential to human life, including phospholipids, steroids, and waxes.

While an excess of any substance can be a problem, all of these lipids play essential roles in living things.

In this outcome, we will discuss lipids and the role they plan in our bodies.

Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between the different kinds of lipids
  • Identify several major functions of lipids
Photo shows a river otter swimming.

Figure 1. Hydrophobic lipids in the fur of aquatic mammals, such as this river otter, protect them from the elements. (credit: Ken Bosma)

Lipids include a diverse group of compounds that are largely nonpolar in nature. This is because they are hydrocarbons that include mostly nonpolar carbon–carbon or carbon–hydrogen bonds. Non-polar molecules are hydrophobic (“water fearing”), or insoluble in water. Lipids perform many different functions in a cell. Cells store energy for long-term use in the form of fats. Lipids also provide insulation from the environment for plants and animals (Figure 1). For example, they help keep aquatic birds and mammals dry when forming a protective layer over fur or feathers because of their water-repellant hydrophobic nature. Lipids are also the building blocks of many hormones and are an important constituent of all cellular membranes. Lipids include fats, oils, waxes, phospholipids, and steroids.

Fats and Oils

A fat molecule, such as a triglyceride, consists of two main components—glycerol and fatty acids. Glycerol is an organic compound with three carbon atoms, five hydrogen atoms, and three hydroxyl (–OH) groups. Fatty acids have a long chain of hydrocarbons to which an acidic carboxyl group is attached, hence the name “fatty acid.” The number of carbons in the fatty acid may range from 4 to 36; most common are those containing 12–18 carbons. In a fat molecule, a fatty acid is attached to each of the three oxygen atoms in the –OH groups of the glycerol molecule with a covalent bond (Figure 2).

Images of the molecular structures of a saturated fatty acid, unsaturated fatty acid, triglyceride, steroid, and phospholipid.

Figure 2. Lipids include fats, such as triglycerides, which are made up of fatty acids and glycerol, phospholipids, and steroids.

During this covalent bond formation, three water molecules are released. The three fatty acids in the fat may be similar or dissimilar. These fats are also called triglycerides because they have three fatty acids. Some fatty acids have common names that specify their origin. For example, palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid, is derived from the palm tree. Arachidic acid is derived from Arachis hypogaea, the scientific name for peanuts.

Fatty acids may be saturated or unsaturated. In a fatty acid chain, if there are only single bonds between neighboring carbons in the hydrocarbon chain, the fatty acid is saturated. Saturated fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen; in other words, the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon skeleton is maximized.

When the hydrocarbon chain contains a double bond, the fatty acid is an unsaturated fatty acid.

Most unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are called oils. If there is one double bond in the molecule, then it is known as a monounsaturated fat (e.g., olive oil), and if there is more than one double bond, then it is known as a polyunsaturated fat (e.g., canola oil).

Saturated fats tend to get packed tightly and are solid at room temperature. Animal fats with stearic acid and palmitic acid contained in meat, and the fat with butyric acid contained in butter, are examples of saturated fats. Mammals store fats in specialized cells called adipocytes, where globules of fat occupy most of the cell. In plants, fat or oil is stored in seeds and is used as a source of energy during embryonic development.

Unsaturated fats or oils are usually of plant origin and contain unsaturated fatty acids. The double bond causes a bend or a “kink” that prevents the fatty acids from packing tightly, keeping them liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, and cod liver oil are examples of unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats help to improve blood cholesterol levels, whereas saturated fats contribute to plaque formation in the arteries, which increases the risk of a heart attack.

Margarine, some types of peanut butter, and shortening are examples of artificially hydrogenated trans-fats. Recent studies have shown that an increase in trans-fats in the human diet may lead to an increase in levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, which, in turn, may lead to plaque deposition in the arteries, resulting in heart disease. Many fast food restaurants have recently eliminated the use of trans-fats, and U.S. food labels are now required to list their trans-fat content.In the food industry, oils are artificially hydrogenated to make them semi-solid, leading to less spoilage and increased shelf life. Simply speaking, hydrogen gas is bubbled through oils to solidify them. During this hydrogenation process, double bonds of the cis-conformation in the hydrocarbon chain may be converted to double bonds in the trans-conformation. This forms a trans-fat from a cis-fat. The orientation of the double bonds affects the chemical properties of the fat (Figure 3).

Two images show the molecular structure of a fat in the cis-conformation and the trans-conformation.

Figure 3. During the hydrogenation process, the orientation around the double bonds is changed, making a trans-fat from a cis-fat. This changes the chemical properties of the molecule.

Essential fatty acids are fatty acids that are required but not synthesized by the human body. Consequently, they must be supplemented through the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids fall into this category and are one of only two known essential fatty acids for humans (the other being omega-6 fatty acids). They are a type of polyunsaturated fat and are called omega-3 fatty acids because the third carbon from the end of the fatty acid participates in a double bond.

Salmon, trout, and tuna are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are important in brain function and normal growth and development. They may also prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of cancer.

Like carbohydrates, fats have received a lot of bad publicity. It is true that eating an excess of fried foods and other “fatty” foods leads to weight gain. However, fats do have important functions. Fats serve as long-term energy storage. They also provide insulation for the body. Therefore, “healthy” unsaturated fats in moderate amounts should be consumed on a regular basis.

Phospholipids

Phospholipids are the major constituent of the plasma membrane. Like fats, they are composed of fatty acid chains attached to a glycerol or similar backbone. Instead of three fatty acids attached, however, there are two fatty acids and the third carbon of the glycerol backbone is bound to a phosphate group. The phosphate group is modified by the addition of an alcohol.

A phospholipid has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic regions. The fatty acid chains are hydrophobic and exclude themselves from water, whereas the phosphate is hydrophilic and interacts with water.

Cells are surrounded by a membrane, which has a bilayer of phospholipids. The fatty acids of phospholipids face inside, away from water, whereas the phosphate group can face either the outside environment or the inside of the cell, which are both aqueous.

Part A shows the molecular structure of a phospholipid. It consists of two fatty acids attached to the first and second carbons in glycerol, and a phosphate group attached to the third position. The phosphate group may be further modified by addition of another molecule to one of its oxygens. Two molecules that may modify the phosphate group, choline and serine, are shown. Choline consists of a two-carbon chain with a hydroxy group attached to one end and a nitrogen attached to the other. The nitrogen, in turn, has three methyl groups attached to it and has a charge of plus one. Serine consists of a two-carbon chain with a hydroxyl group attached to one end. An amino group and a carboxyl group are attached to the other end. Part B shows an illustration of a phospholipids bilayer. The phospholipids bilayer consists of two layers of phospholipids. The hydrophobic tails of the phospholipids face one another while the hydrophilic head groups face outward.

Figure 4. (a) A phospholipid is a molecule with two fatty acids and a modified phosphate group attached to a glycerol backbone. The phosphate may be modified by the addition of charged or polar chemical groups. Two chemical groups that may modify the phosphate, choline and serine, are shown here. Both choline and serine attach to the phosphate group at the position labeled R. (b) The phospholipid bilayer is the major component of all cellular membranes. The hydrophilic head groups of the phospholipids face the aqueous solution. The hydrophobic tails are sequestered in the middle of the bilayer.

Steroids and Waxes

Unlike the phospholipids and fats discussed earlier, steroids have a ring structure. Although they do not resemble other lipids, they are grouped with them because they are also hydrophobic. All steroids have four, linked carbon rings and several of them, like cholesterol, have a short tail.

Cholesterol is a steroid. Cholesterol is mainly synthesized in the liver and is the precursor of many steroid hormones, such as testosterone and estradiol. It is also the precursor of vitamins E and K. Cholesterol is the precursor of bile salts, which help in the breakdown of fats and their subsequent absorption by cells. Although cholesterol is often spoken of in negative terms, it is necessary for the proper functioning of the body. It is a key component of the plasma membranes of animal cells.

Waxes are made up of a hydrocarbon chain with an alcohol (–OH) group and a fatty acid. Examples of animal waxes include beeswax and lanolin. Plants also have waxes, such as the coating on their leaves, that helps prevent them from drying out.

The structures of cholesterol and cortisol are shown. Each of these molecules is composed of three six-carbon rings fused to a five-carbon ring. Cholesterol has a branched hydrocarbon attached to the five-carbon ring, and a hydroxyl group attached to the terminal six-carbon ring. Cortisol has a two-carbon chain modified with a double-bonded oxygen, a hydroxyl group attached to the five-carbon ring, and an oxygen double-bonded to the terminal six-carbon ring.

Figure 5. Steroids such as cholesterol and cortisol are composed of four fused hydrocarbon rings

For an additional perspective on lipids, explore this interactive animation.

In Summary: Lipids

Lipids are a class of macromolecules that are nonpolar and hydrophobic in nature. Major types include fats and oils, waxes, phospholipids, and steroids. Fats are a stored form of energy and are also known as triacylglycerols or triglycerides. Fats are made up of fatty acids and either glycerol or sphingosine. Fatty acids may be unsaturated or saturated, depending on the presence or absence of double bonds in the hydrocarbon chain. If only single bonds are present, they are known as saturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fatty acids may have one or more double bonds in the hydrocarbon chain. Phospholipids make up the matrix of membranes. They have a glycerol or sphingosine backbone to which two fatty acid chains and a phosphate-containing group are attached. Steroids are another class of lipids. Their basic structure has four fused carbon rings. Cholesterol is a type of steroid and is an important constituent of the plasma membrane, where it helps to maintain the fluid nature of the membrane. It is also the precursor of steroid hormones such as testosterone.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.