Mar 27, 2010


Lipids are the one class of large biological molecules that does not consist of polymers. The compounds called lipids are grouped together because they share one important trait: They have little or no affinity for water. The hydrophobic behavior of lipids is based on their molecular structure. Although they may have some polar bonds associated with oxygen, lipids consist mostly of hydrocarbons. Smaller than true (polymeric) macromolecules, lipids are a highly varied group in both form and function. Lipids include waxes and certain pigments, but we will focus on the most biologically important types of lipids: fats, phospholipids, and steroids.
Although fats are not polymers, they are large molecules, and they are assembled from smaller molecules by dehydration reactions. A fat is constructed from two kinds of smaller molecules: glycerol and fatty acids.

The synthesis and structure of a fat, or triacylglycerol. The molecular building blocks of a fat are one molecule of glycerol and three molecules of fatty acids. (a) One water molecule is removed for each fatty acid joined to the glycerol. (b) A fat molecule with three identical fatty acid units. The carbons of the fatty acids are arranged zig–zag to suggest the actual orientations of the four single bonds extending from each carbon.

Glycerol is an alcohol with three carbons, each bearing a hydroxyl group. A fatty acid has a long carbon skeleton, usually 16 or 18 carbon atoms in length. At one end of the fatty acid is a carboxyl group, the functional group that gives these molecules the name fatty acid. Attached to the carboxyl group is a long hydrocarbon chain. The nonpolar C–H bonds in the hydrocarbon chains of fatty acids are the reason fats are hydrophobic. Fats separate from water because the water molecules hydrogen–bond to one another and exclude the fats. A common example of this phenomenon is the separation of vegetable oil (a liquid fat) from the aqueous vinegar solution in a bottle of salad dressing.

In making a fat, three fatty acid molecules each join to glycerol by an ester linkage, a bond between a hydroxyl group and a carboxyl group. The resulting fat, also called a triacylglycerol , thus consists of three fatty acids linked to one glycerol molecule. (Still another name for a fat is triglyceride, a word often found in the list of ingredients on packaged foods.) The fatty acids in a fat can be the same, as in Figure 5.11b, or they can be of two or three different kinds.

These terms refer to the structure of the hydrocarbon chains of the fatty acids. If there are no double bonds between carbon atoms composing the chain, then as many hydrogen atoms as possible are bonded to the carbon skeleton. Such a structure is described as being saturated with hydrogen, so the resulting fatty acid is called a saturated fatty acid. An unsaturated fatty acid has one or more double bonds, formed by the removal of hydrogen atoms from the carbon skeleton. The fatty acid will have a kink in its hydrocarbon chain wherever a cis double bond occurs.

A fat made from saturated fatty acids is called a saturated fat. Most animal fats are saturated: The hydrocarbon chains of their fatty acids—the “tails” of the fat molecules—lack double bonds, and the molecules can pack tightly, side by side. Saturated animal fats—such as lard and butter—are solid at room temperature. In contrast, the fats of plants and fishes are generally unsaturated, meaning that they are built of one or more types of unsaturated fatty acids. Usually liquid at room temperature, plant and fish fats are referred to as oils—olive oil and cod liver oil are examples. The kinks where the cis double bonds are located prevent the molecules from packing together closely enough to solidify at room temperature. The phrase “hydrogenated vegetable oils” on food labels means that unsaturated fats have been synthetically converted to saturated fats by adding hydrogen. Peanut butter, margarine, and many other products are hydrogenated to prevent lipids from separating out in liquid (oil) form.

A diet rich in saturated fats is one of several factors that may contribute to the cardiovascular disease known as atherosclerosis. In this condition, deposits called plaques develop within the walls of blood vessels, causing inward bulges that impede blood flow and reduce the resilience of the vessels. Recent studies have shown that the process of hydrogenating vegetable oils produces not only saturated fats but also unsaturated fats with trans double bonds. These trans fat molecules may contribute more than saturated fats to atherosclerosis and other problems.

Fat has come to have such a negative connotation in our culture that you might wonder whether fats serve any useful purpose. The major function of fats is energy storage. The hydrocarbon chains of fats are similar to gasoline molecules and just as rich in energy. A gram of fat stores more than twice as much energy as a gram of a polysaccharide, such as starch. Because plants are relatively immobile, they can function with bulky energy storage in the form of starch. (Vegetable oils are generally obtained from seeds, where more compact storage is an asset to the plant.) Animals, however, must carry their energy stores with them, so there is an advantage to having a more compact reservoir of fuel—fat. Humans and other mammals stock their long–term food reserves in adipose cells (see Figure 4.6b), which swell and shrink as fat is deposited and withdrawn from storage. In addition to storing energy, adipose tissue also cushions such vital organs as the kidneys, and a layer of fat beneath the skin insulates the body. This subcutaneous layer is especially thick in whales, seals, and most other marine mammals, protecting them from cold ocean water.

The structure of a phospholipid. A phospholipid has a hydrophilic (polar) head and two hydrophobic (nonpolar) tails. Phospholipid diversity is based on differences in the two fatty acids and in the groups attached to the phosphate group of the head. This particular phospholipid, called a phosphatidylcholine, has an attached choline group. The kink in one of its tails is due to a cis double bond. (a) The structural formula follows a common chemical convention of omitting the carbons and attached hydrogens of the hydrocarbon tails. (b) In the space–filling model, black = carbon, gray = hydrogen, red = oxygen, yellow = phosphorus, and blue = nitrogen.

A phospholipid is similar to a fat, but has only two fatty acids attached to glycerol rather than three. The third hydroxyl group of glycerol is joined to a phosphate group, which has a negative electrical charge. Additional small molecules, usually charged or polar, can be linked to the phosphate group to form a variety of phospholipids.

Phospholipids show ambivalent behavior toward water. Their hydrocarbon tails are hydrophobic and are excluded from water. However, the phosphate group and its attachments form a hydrophilic head that has an affinity for water. When phospholipids are added to water, they self–assemble into double–layered aggregates—bilayers—that shield their hydrophobic portions from water.

Steroids are lipids characterized by a carbon skeleton consisting of four fused rings.

Different steroids vary in the functional groups attached to this ensemble of rings. One steroid, cholesterol , is a common component of animal cell membranes and is also the precursor from which other steroids are synthesized. Many hormones, including vertebrate sex hormones, are steroids produced from cholesterol. Thus, cholesterol is a crucial molecule in animals, although a high level of it in the blood may contribute to atherosclerosis. Both saturated fats and trans fats exert their negative impact on health by affecting cholesterol levels.