Biological Macromolecules

11 Lipids

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

  • Describe the four major types of lipids
  • Explain the role of fats in storing energy
  • Differentiate between saturated and unsaturated fatty acids
  • Describe phospholipids and their role in cells
  • Define the basic structure of a steroid and some steroid functions
  • Explain how cholesterol helps maintain the plasma membrane’s fluid nature

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)). 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.

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


Photo shows a river otter swimming.  The river otter has thick fur that is smooth and wet.

Fats and Oils

A fat molecule consists of two main components—glycerol and fatty acids. Glycerol is an organic compound (alcohol) with three carbons, five hydrogens, and three hydroxyl (OH) groups. Fatty acids have a long chain of hydrocarbons to which a carboxyl group is attached, hence the name “fatty acid.” The number of carbons in the fatty acid may range from 4 to 36. The most common are those containing 12–18 carbons. In a fat molecule, the fatty acids attach to each of the glycerol molecule’s three carbons with an ester bond through an oxygen atom ((Figure)).

Joining three fatty acids to a glycerol backbone in a dehydration reaction forms triacylglycerol. Three water molecules release in the process.


The structures of glycerol, a fatty acid, and a triacylglycerol are shown. Glycerol is a chain of three carbons, with a hydroxyl (upper O upper H) group attached to each carbon. A fatty acid has an acetyl (upper C upper O upper O upper H) group attached to a long carbon chain. In triacylglycerol, a fatty acid is attached to each of glycerols three hydroxyl groups via the carboxyl group. A water molecule is lost in the reaction so the structure of the linkage is C dash O dash C, with an oxygen double bonded to the second carbon.

During this ester bond formation, three water molecules are released. The three fatty acids in the triacylglycerol may be similar or dissimilar. We also call fats triacylglycerols or triglycerides because of their chemical structure. 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 hypogea, the scientific name for groundnuts or 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. Stearic acid is an example of a saturated fatty acid ((Figure)).

Stearic acid is a common saturated fatty acid.


The structure of stearic acid is shown. This fatty acid has a hydrocarbon chain seventeen residues long attached to an acetyl group. All bonds between the carbons are single bonds.

When the hydrocarbon chain contains a double bond, the fatty acid is unsaturated. Oleic acid is an example of an unsaturated fatty acid ((Figure)).

Oleic acid is a common unsaturated fatty acid.


The structure of oleic acid is shown. This fatty acid has a hydrocarbon chain seventeen residues long attached to an acetyl group. The bond between carbon eight and carbon nine is a double bond.

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

When a fatty acid has no double bonds, it is a saturated fatty acid because it is not possible to add more hydrogen to the chain’s carbon atoms. A fat may contain similar or different fatty acids attached to glycerol. Long straight fatty acids with single bonds generally pack tightly and are solid at room temperature. Animal fats with stearic acid and palmitic acid (common in meat) and the fat with butyric acid (common in butter) are examples of saturated fats. Mammals store fats in specialized cells, or adipocytes, where fat globules occupy most of the cell’s volume. Plants store fat or oil in many seeds and use them as a source of energy during seedling development. Unsaturated fats or oils are usually of plant origin and contain cis unsaturated fatty acids. Cis and trans indicate the configuration of the molecule around the double bond. If hydrogens are present in the same plane, it is a cis fat. If the hydrogen atoms are on two different planes, it is a trans fat. The cis double bond causes a bend or a “kink” that prevents the fatty acids from packing tightly, keeping them liquid at room temperature ((Figure)). Olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, and cod liver oil are examples of unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats help to lower blood cholesterol levels; whereas, saturated fats contribute to plaque formation in the arteries.

Saturated fatty acids have hydrocarbon chains connected by single bonds only. Unsaturated fatty acids have one or more double bonds. Each double bond may be in a cis or trans configuration. In the cis configuration, both hydrogens are on the same side of the hydrocarbon chain. In the trans configuration, the hydrogens are on opposite sides. A cis double bond causes a kink in the chain.


A comparison of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids is shown. Stearic acid, a saturated fatty acid, has a hydrocarbon chain seventeen residues long attached to an acetyl group. Oleic acid also has a seventeen-residue hydrocarbon chain, but a double bond exists between the eighth and ninth carbon in the chain. In cis oleic acid, the hydrogens are on the same side of the double bond.  In the cis oleic acid, the 2 hydrogens on the same side cuase the chain to bend. In trans oleic acid, they are on opposite sides.

Trans Fats

The food industry artificially hydrogenates oils to make them semi-solid and of a consistency desirable for many processed food products. 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 convert to double bonds in the trans– conformation.

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 higher levels of low-density lipoproteins (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 banned using trans fats, and food labels are required to display the trans fat content.

Omega Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids are those that the human body requires but does not synthesize. Consequently, they have to be supplemented through ingestion via the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids (like those in (Figure)) fall into this category and are one of only two known for humans (the other is omega-6 fatty acid). These are polyunsaturated fatty acids and are omega-3 because a double bond connects the third carbon from the hydrocarbon chain’s end to its neighboring carbon.

Alpha-linolenic acid is an example of an omega-3 fatty acid. It has three cis double bonds and, as a result, a curved shape. For clarity, the diagram does not show the carbons. Each singly bonded carbon has two hydrogens associated with it, which the diagram also does not show.


The molecular structures of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid is shown. Alpha-linolenic acid has three double bonds located eight, eleven, and fourteen residues from the acetyl group. It has a hooked shape.

The farthest carbon away from the carboxyl group is numbered as the omega (ω) carbon, and if the double bond is between the third and fourth carbon from that end, it is an omega-3 fatty acid. Nutritionally important because the body does not make them, omega-3 fatty acids include alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), all of which are polyunsaturated. Salmon, trout, and tuna are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of sudden death from heart attacks, lower triglycerides in the blood, decrease blood pressure, and prevent thrombosis by inhibiting blood clotting. They also reduce inflammation, and may help lower the risk of some cancers in animals.

Like carbohydrates, fats have received considerable 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. Many vitamins are fat soluble, and fats serve as a long-term storage form of fatty acids: a source of energy. They also provide insulation for the body. Therefore, we should consume “healthy” fats in moderate amounts on a regular basis.

Waxes

Wax covers some aquatic birds’ feathers and some plants’ leaf surfaces. Because of waxes’ hydrophobic nature, they prevent water from sticking on the surface ((Figure)). Long fatty acid chains esterified to long-chain alcohols comprise waxes.

Lipids comprise waxy coverings on some leaves. (credit: Roger Griffith)


The photo shows leaves on a plant; the leaves appear thick, shiny, and waxy.

Phospholipids

Phospholipids are major plasma membrane constituents that comprise cells’ outermost layer. Like fats, they are comprised of fatty acid chains attached to a glycerol or sphingosine backbone. However, instead of three fatty acids attached as in triglycerides, there are two fatty acids forming diacylglycerol, and a modified phosphate group occupies the glycerol backbone’s third carbon ((Figure)). A phosphate group alone attached to a diaglycerol does not qualify as a phospholipid. It is phosphatidate (diacylglycerol 3-phosphate), the precursor of phospholipids. An alcohol modifies the phosphate group. Phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine are two important phospholipids that are in plasma membranes.

A phospholipid is a molecule with two fatty acids and a modified phosphate group attached to a glycerol backbone. Adding a charged or polar chemical group may modify the phosphate.


The molecular structure of a phospholipid is shown. 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.

A phospholipid is an amphipathic molecule, meaning it has a hydrophobic and a hydrophilic part. The fatty acid chains are hydrophobic and cannot interact with water; whereas, the phosphate-containing group is hydrophilic and interacts with water ((Figure)).

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.


An illustration of a phospholipids bilayer is shown. 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.

The head is the hydrophilic part, and the tail contains the hydrophobic fatty acids. In a membrane, a bilayer of phospholipids forms the structure’s matrix, phospholipids’ fatty acid tails face inside, away from water; whereas, the phosphate group faces the outside, aqueous side ((Figure)).

Phospholipids are responsible for the plasma membrane’s dynamic nature. If a drop of phospholipids is placed in water, it spontaneously forms a structure that scientists call a micelle, where the hydrophilic phosphate heads face the outside and the fatty acids face the structure’s interior.

Steroids

Unlike the phospholipids and fats that we discussed earlier, steroids have a fused ring structure. Although they do not resemble the other lipids, scientists group them with them because they are also hydrophobic and insoluble in water. All steroids have four linked carbon rings and several of them, like cholesterol, have a short tail ((Figure)). Many steroids also have the –OH functional group, which puts them in the alcohol classification (sterols).

Four fused hydrocarbon rings comprise steroids such as cholesterol and cortisol.


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.

Cholesterol is the most common steroid. The liver synthesizes cholesterol and is the precursor to many steroid hormones such as testosterone and estradiol, which gonads and endocrine glands secrete. It is also the precursor to Vitamin D. Cholesterol is also the precursor of bile salts, which help emulsifying fats and their subsequent absorption by cells. Although lay people often speak negatively about cholesterol, it is necessary for the body’s proper functioning. Sterols (cholesterol in animal cells, phytosterol in plants) are components of the plasma membrane of cells and are found within the phospholipid bilayer.

Link to Learning

For an additional perspective on lipids, explore the interactive animation “Biomolecules: The Lipids”.

Section Summary

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 comprised 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 saturated fatty acids. Unsaturated fatty acids may have one or more double bonds in the hydrocarbon chain. Phospholipids comprise the membrane’s matrix. 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 membrane’s fluid nature. It is also the precursor of steroid hormones such as testosterone.

Review Questions

Saturated fats have all of the following characteristics except:

  1. they are solid at room temperature
  2. they have single bonds within the carbon chain
  3. they are usually obtained from animal sources
  4. they tend to dissolve in water easily

D

Phospholipids are important components of ________.

  1. the plasma membrane of cells
  2. the ring structure of steroids
  3. the waxy covering on leaves
  4. the double bond in hydrocarbon chains

A

Cholesterol is an integral part of plasma membranes. Based on its structure, where is it found in the membrane?

  1. on the extracellular surface
  2. embedded with the phospholipid heads
  3. within the tail bilayer
  4. attached to the intracellular surface

C

Critical Thinking Questions

Explain at least three functions that lipids serve in plants and/or animals.

Fat serves as a valuable way for animals to store energy. It can also provide insulation. Waxes can protect plant leaves and mammalian fur from getting wet. Phospholipids and steroids are important components of animal cell membranes, as well as plant, fungal, and bacterial membranes.

Why have trans fats been banned from some restaurants? How are they created?

Trans fats are created artificially when hydrogen gas is bubbled through oils to solidify them. The double bonds of the cis conformation in the hydrocarbon chain may be converted to double bonds in the trans configuration. Some restaurants are banning trans fats because they cause higher levels of LDL, or “bad”cholesterol.

Why are fatty acids better than glycogen for storing large amounts of chemical energy?

Fats have a higher energy density than carbohydrates (averaging 9kcal/gram versus 4.3kcal/gram respectively). Thus, on a per gram basis, more energy can be stored in fats than can be stored in carbohydrates. Additionally, fats are packaged into spherical globules to minimize interactions with the water-based plasma membrane, while glycogen is a large branched carbohydrate that cannot be compacted for storage.

Part of cortisol’s role in the body involves passing through the plasma membrane to initiate signaling inside a cell. Describe how the structures of cortisol and the plasma membrane allow this to occur.

Cortisol is a small, generally hydrophobic molecule, while the phospholipids that create plasma membranes have a hydrophilic head and hydrophobic tails. Since cortisol is hydrophobic, it can interact with the sequestered tails of the phospholipids in the center of the plasma membrane. This, along with its small size, allows cortisol to move through the plasma membrane to the inside of the cell.

Glossary

lipid
macromolecule that is nonpolar and insoluble in water
omega fat
type of polyunsaturated fat that the body requires; numbering the carbon omega starts from the methyl end or the end that is farthest from the carboxylic end
phospholipid
membranes’ major constituent; comprised of two fatty acids and a phosphate-containing group attached to a glycerol backbone
saturated fatty acid
long-chain hydrocarbon with single covalent bonds in the carbon chain; the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon skeleton is maximized
steroid
type of lipid comprised of four fused hydrocarbon rings forming a planar structure
trans fat
fat formed artificially by hydrogenating oils, leading to a different arrangement of double bond(s) than those in naturally occurring lipids
triacylglycerol (also, triglyceride)
fat molecule; consists of three fatty acids linked to a glycerol molecule
unsaturated fatty acid
long-chain hydrocarbon that has one or more double bonds in the hydrocarbon chain
wax
lipid comprised of a long-chain fatty acid that is esterified to a long-chain alcohol; serves as a protective coating on some feathers, aquatic mammal fur, and leaves

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Lipids by OpenStax Biology 2nd Edition is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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