Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
Biology 2e

3.3 Lipids

Biology 2e3.3 Lipids
  1. Preface
  2. The Chemistry of Life
    1. 1 The Study of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 The Science of Biology
      3. 1.2 Themes and Concepts of Biology
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 2 The Chemical Foundation of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 Atoms, Isotopes, Ions, and Molecules: The Building Blocks
      3. 2.2 Water
      4. 2.3 Carbon
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 3 Biological Macromolecules
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 Synthesis of Biological Macromolecules
      3. 3.2 Carbohydrates
      4. 3.3 Lipids
      5. 3.4 Proteins
      6. 3.5 Nucleic Acids
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. The Cell
    1. 4 Cell Structure
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 Studying Cells
      3. 4.2 Prokaryotic Cells
      4. 4.3 Eukaryotic Cells
      5. 4.4 The Endomembrane System and Proteins
      6. 4.5 The Cytoskeleton
      7. 4.6 Connections between Cells and Cellular Activities
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 5 Structure and Function of Plasma Membranes
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 Components and Structure
      3. 5.2 Passive Transport
      4. 5.3 Active Transport
      5. 5.4 Bulk Transport
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 6 Metabolism
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 Energy and Metabolism
      3. 6.2 Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy
      4. 6.3 The Laws of Thermodynamics
      5. 6.4 ATP: Adenosine Triphosphate
      6. 6.5 Enzymes
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 7 Cellular Respiration
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Energy in Living Systems
      3. 7.2 Glycolysis
      4. 7.3 Oxidation of Pyruvate and the Citric Acid Cycle
      5. 7.4 Oxidative Phosphorylation
      6. 7.5 Metabolism without Oxygen
      7. 7.6 Connections of Carbohydrate, Protein, and Lipid Metabolic Pathways
      8. 7.7 Regulation of Cellular Respiration
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 8 Photosynthesis
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 Overview of Photosynthesis
      3. 8.2 The Light-Dependent Reactions of Photosynthesis
      4. 8.3 Using Light Energy to Make Organic Molecules
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 9 Cell Communication
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 Signaling Molecules and Cellular Receptors
      3. 9.2 Propagation of the Signal
      4. 9.3 Response to the Signal
      5. 9.4 Signaling in Single-Celled Organisms
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 10 Cell Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Cell Division
      3. 10.2 The Cell Cycle
      4. 10.3 Control of the Cell Cycle
      5. 10.4 Cancer and the Cell Cycle
      6. 10.5 Prokaryotic Cell Division
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  4. Genetics
    1. 11 Meiosis and Sexual Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 The Process of Meiosis
      3. 11.2 Sexual Reproduction
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 12 Mendel's Experiments and Heredity
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 Mendel’s Experiments and the Laws of Probability
      3. 12.2 Characteristics and Traits
      4. 12.3 Laws of Inheritance
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 13 Modern Understandings of Inheritance
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Chromosomal Theory and Genetic Linkage
      3. 13.2 Chromosomal Basis of Inherited Disorders
      4. Key Terms
      5. Chapter Summary
      6. Visual Connection Questions
      7. Review Questions
      8. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 14 DNA Structure and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 Historical Basis of Modern Understanding
      3. 14.2 DNA Structure and Sequencing
      4. 14.3 Basics of DNA Replication
      5. 14.4 DNA Replication in Prokaryotes
      6. 14.5 DNA Replication in Eukaryotes
      7. 14.6 DNA Repair
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 15 Genes and Proteins
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 The Genetic Code
      3. 15.2 Prokaryotic Transcription
      4. 15.3 Eukaryotic Transcription
      5. 15.4 RNA Processing in Eukaryotes
      6. 15.5 Ribosomes and Protein Synthesis
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 16 Gene Expression
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 Regulation of Gene Expression
      3. 16.2 Prokaryotic Gene Regulation
      4. 16.3 Eukaryotic Epigenetic Gene Regulation
      5. 16.4 Eukaryotic Transcription Gene Regulation
      6. 16.5 Eukaryotic Post-transcriptional Gene Regulation
      7. 16.6 Eukaryotic Translational and Post-translational Gene Regulation
      8. 16.7 Cancer and Gene Regulation
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 17 Biotechnology and Genomics
      1. Introduction
      2. 17.1 Biotechnology
      3. 17.2 Mapping Genomes
      4. 17.3 Whole-Genome Sequencing
      5. 17.4 Applying Genomics
      6. 17.5 Genomics and Proteomics
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
  5. Evolutionary Processes
    1. 18 Evolution and the Origin of Species
      1. Introduction
      2. 18.1 Understanding Evolution
      3. 18.2 Formation of New Species
      4. 18.3 Reconnection and Speciation Rates
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 19 The Evolution of Populations
      1. Introduction
      2. 19.1 Population Evolution
      3. 19.2 Population Genetics
      4. 19.3 Adaptive Evolution
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 20 Phylogenies and the History of Life
      1. Introduction
      2. 20.1 Organizing Life on Earth
      3. 20.2 Determining Evolutionary Relationships
      4. 20.3 Perspectives on the Phylogenetic Tree
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  6. Biological Diversity
    1. 21 Viruses
      1. Introduction
      2. 21.1 Viral Evolution, Morphology, and Classification
      3. 21.2 Virus Infections and Hosts
      4. 21.3 Prevention and Treatment of Viral Infections
      5. 21.4 Other Acellular Entities: Prions and Viroids
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 22 Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Archaea
      1. Introduction
      2. 22.1 Prokaryotic Diversity
      3. 22.2 Structure of Prokaryotes: Bacteria and Archaea
      4. 22.3 Prokaryotic Metabolism
      5. 22.4 Bacterial Diseases in Humans
      6. 22.5 Beneficial Prokaryotes
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 23 Protists
      1. Introduction
      2. 23.1 Eukaryotic Origins
      3. 23.2 Characteristics of Protists
      4. 23.3 Groups of Protists
      5. 23.4 Ecology of Protists
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 24 Fungi
      1. Introduction
      2. 24.1 Characteristics of Fungi
      3. 24.2 Classifications of Fungi
      4. 24.3 Ecology of Fungi
      5. 24.4 Fungal Parasites and Pathogens
      6. 24.5 Importance of Fungi in Human Life
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 25 Seedless Plants
      1. Introduction
      2. 25.1 Early Plant Life
      3. 25.2 Green Algae: Precursors of Land Plants
      4. 25.3 Bryophytes
      5. 25.4 Seedless Vascular Plants
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 26 Seed Plants
      1. Introduction
      2. 26.1 Evolution of Seed Plants
      3. 26.2 Gymnosperms
      4. 26.3 Angiosperms
      5. 26.4 The Role of Seed Plants
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 27 Introduction to Animal Diversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 27.1 Features of the Animal Kingdom
      3. 27.2 Features Used to Classify Animals
      4. 27.3 Animal Phylogeny
      5. 27.4 The Evolutionary History of the Animal Kingdom
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. 28 Invertebrates
      1. Introduction
      2. 28.1 Phylum Porifera
      3. 28.2 Phylum Cnidaria
      4. 28.3 Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Flatworms, Rotifers, and Nemerteans
      5. 28.4 Superphylum Lophotrochozoa: Molluscs and Annelids
      6. 28.5 Superphylum Ecdysozoa: Nematodes and Tardigrades
      7. 28.6 Superphylum Ecdysozoa: Arthropods
      8. 28.7 Superphylum Deuterostomia
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. 29 Vertebrates
      1. Introduction
      2. 29.1 Chordates
      3. 29.2 Fishes
      4. 29.3 Amphibians
      5. 29.4 Reptiles
      6. 29.5 Birds
      7. 29.6 Mammals
      8. 29.7 The Evolution of Primates
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  7. Plant Structure and Function
    1. 30 Plant Form and Physiology
      1. Introduction
      2. 30.1 The Plant Body
      3. 30.2 Stems
      4. 30.3 Roots
      5. 30.4 Leaves
      6. 30.5 Transport of Water and Solutes in Plants
      7. 30.6 Plant Sensory Systems and Responses
      8. Key Terms
      9. Chapter Summary
      10. Visual Connection Questions
      11. Review Questions
      12. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 31 Soil and Plant Nutrition
      1. Introduction
      2. 31.1 Nutritional Requirements of Plants
      3. 31.2 The Soil
      4. 31.3 Nutritional Adaptations of Plants
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 32 Plant Reproduction
      1. Introduction
      2. 32.1 Reproductive Development and Structure
      3. 32.2 Pollination and Fertilization
      4. 32.3 Asexual Reproduction
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
  8. Animal Structure and Function
    1. 33 The Animal Body: Basic Form and Function
      1. Introduction
      2. 33.1 Animal Form and Function
      3. 33.2 Animal Primary Tissues
      4. 33.3 Homeostasis
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 34 Animal Nutrition and the Digestive System
      1. Introduction
      2. 34.1 Digestive Systems
      3. 34.2 Nutrition and Energy Production
      4. 34.3 Digestive System Processes
      5. 34.4 Digestive System Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 35 The Nervous System
      1. Introduction
      2. 35.1 Neurons and Glial Cells
      3. 35.2 How Neurons Communicate
      4. 35.3 The Central Nervous System
      5. 35.4 The Peripheral Nervous System
      6. 35.5 Nervous System Disorders
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 36 Sensory Systems
      1. Introduction
      2. 36.1 Sensory Processes
      3. 36.2 Somatosensation
      4. 36.3 Taste and Smell
      5. 36.4 Hearing and Vestibular Sensation
      6. 36.5 Vision
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    5. 37 The Endocrine System
      1. Introduction
      2. 37.1 Types of Hormones
      3. 37.2 How Hormones Work
      4. 37.3 Regulation of Body Processes
      5. 37.4 Regulation of Hormone Production
      6. 37.5 Endocrine Glands
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    6. 38 The Musculoskeletal System
      1. Introduction
      2. 38.1 Types of Skeletal Systems
      3. 38.2 Bone
      4. 38.3 Joints and Skeletal Movement
      5. 38.4 Muscle Contraction and Locomotion
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    7. 39 The Respiratory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 39.1 Systems of Gas Exchange
      3. 39.2 Gas Exchange across Respiratory Surfaces
      4. 39.3 Breathing
      5. 39.4 Transport of Gases in Human Bodily Fluids
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    8. 40 The Circulatory System
      1. Introduction
      2. 40.1 Overview of the Circulatory System
      3. 40.2 Components of the Blood
      4. 40.3 Mammalian Heart and Blood Vessels
      5. 40.4 Blood Flow and Blood Pressure Regulation
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. 41 Osmotic Regulation and Excretion
      1. Introduction
      2. 41.1 Osmoregulation and Osmotic Balance
      3. 41.2 The Kidneys and Osmoregulatory Organs
      4. 41.3 Excretion Systems
      5. 41.4 Nitrogenous Wastes
      6. 41.5 Hormonal Control of Osmoregulatory Functions
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. 42 The Immune System
      1. Introduction
      2. 42.1 Innate Immune Response
      3. 42.2 Adaptive Immune Response
      4. 42.3 Antibodies
      5. 42.4 Disruptions in the Immune System
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. 43 Animal Reproduction and Development
      1. Introduction
      2. 43.1 Reproduction Methods
      3. 43.2 Fertilization
      4. 43.3 Human Reproductive Anatomy and Gametogenesis
      5. 43.4 Hormonal Control of Human Reproduction
      6. 43.5 Human Pregnancy and Birth
      7. 43.6 Fertilization and Early Embryonic Development
      8. 43.7 Organogenesis and Vertebrate Formation
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
  9. Ecology
    1. 44 Ecology and the Biosphere
      1. Introduction
      2. 44.1 The Scope of Ecology
      3. 44.2 Biogeography
      4. 44.3 Terrestrial Biomes
      5. 44.4 Aquatic Biomes
      6. 44.5 Climate and the Effects of Global Climate Change
      7. Key Terms
      8. Chapter Summary
      9. Visual Connection Questions
      10. Review Questions
      11. Critical Thinking Questions
    2. 45 Population and Community Ecology
      1. Introduction
      2. 45.1 Population Demography
      3. 45.2 Life Histories and Natural Selection
      4. 45.3 Environmental Limits to Population Growth
      5. 45.4 Population Dynamics and Regulation
      6. 45.5 Human Population Growth
      7. 45.6 Community Ecology
      8. 45.7 Behavioral Biology: Proximate and Ultimate Causes of Behavior
      9. Key Terms
      10. Chapter Summary
      11. Visual Connection Questions
      12. Review Questions
      13. Critical Thinking Questions
    3. 46 Ecosystems
      1. Introduction
      2. 46.1 Ecology of Ecosystems
      3. 46.2 Energy Flow through Ecosystems
      4. 46.3 Biogeochemical Cycles
      5. Key Terms
      6. Chapter Summary
      7. Visual Connection Questions
      8. Review Questions
      9. Critical Thinking Questions
    4. 47 Conservation Biology and Biodiversity
      1. Introduction
      2. 47.1 The Biodiversity Crisis
      3. 47.2 The Importance of Biodiversity to Human Life
      4. 47.3 Threats to Biodiversity
      5. 47.4 Preserving Biodiversity
      6. Key Terms
      7. Chapter Summary
      8. Visual Connection Questions
      9. Review Questions
      10. Critical Thinking Questions
  10. A | The Periodic Table of Elements
  11. B | Geological Time
  12. C | Measurements and the Metric System
  13. Index
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 3.12). 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.

Photo shows a river otter swimming.  The river otter has thick fur that is smooth and wet.
Figure 3.12 Hydrophobic lipids in aquatic mammals' fur, such as this river otter, protect them from the elements. (credit: Ken Bosma)

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 3.13).

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.
Figure 3.13 Joining three fatty acids to a glycerol backbone in a dehydration reaction forms triacylglycerol. Three water molecules release in the process.

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 3.14).

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.
Figure 3.14 Stearic acid is a common saturated fatty acid.

When the hydrocarbon chain contains a double bond, the fatty acid is unsaturated. Oleic acid is an example of an unsaturated fatty acid (Figure 3.15).

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.
Figure 3.15 Oleic acid is a common unsaturated fatty acid.

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 3.16). 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.

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.
Figure 3.16 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.

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 3.17) 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.

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.
Figure 3.17 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 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 3.18). Long fatty acid chains esterified to long-chain alcohols comprise waxes.

The photo shows leaves on a plant; the leaves appear thick, shiny, and waxy.
Figure 3.18 Lipids comprise waxy coverings on some leaves. (credit: Roger Griffith)

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 3.19). 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.

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.
Figure 3.19 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.

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 3.20).

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.
Figure 3.20 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.

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 3.20).

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 3.21). Many steroids also have the –OH functional group, which puts them in the alcohol classification (sterols).

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

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”.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© Mar 28, 2018 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.