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4.8: Overview of Fatty Acid Metabolism

JoVE Core
Cell Biology

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Overview of Fatty Acid Metabolism

4.8: Overview of Fatty Acid Metabolism

Lipids also are sources of energy that power cellular processes. Like carbohydrates, lipids are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but these atoms are arranged differently. Most lipids are nonpolar and hydrophobic. Major types include fats and oils, waxes, phospholipids, and steroids.

Fatty acids are catabolized in a process called beta-oxidation, which takes place in the matrix of the mitochondria and converts their fatty acid chains into two-carbon units of acetyl groups. The acetyl groups are picked up by CoA to form acetyl CoA that proceeds into the citric acid cycle. Excess fats are stored in adipocytes as triacylglycerides and can be used as energy reserves.

Trans Fats

The food industry artificially hydrogenates oils to make them semi-solid and of a consistency desirable for many processed food products. 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.

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 must be supplemented through ingestion via the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids  and omega-6 fatty acids are the only two that humans require. These Polyunsaturated fatty acids are termed omega-3 because a double bond connects the third carbon from the hydrocarbon chain's end to its neighboring carbon, while in omega-6 the double bond is present on the sixth carbon.


Phospholipids are major plasma membrane constituents that comprise cells' outermost layer. Like fats, they are 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. A phosphate group alone attached to a diacylglycerol 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.


Cholesterol is the most common steroid. Cholesterol is mainly synthesized in the liver and is the precursor to many steroid hormones such as testosterone and estradiol, which are secreted by the gonads and endocrine glands. It is also the precursor to Vitamin D. Cholesterol is also the precursor of bile salts, which help in the emulsification of fats and their subsequent absorption by cells.

This text is adapted from Openstax, Biology for AP Courses, Section 3.3: Lipids


Fatty Acid Metabolism Beta-oxidation Acetyl CoA Citric Acid Cycle Triacylglycerides Adipocytes Trans Fats Hydrogenation LDL Cholesterol Heart Disease Omega-3 Fatty Acids Omega-6 Fatty Acids Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids Phospholipids Plasma Membrane

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