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What is Phospholipid?

Last updated date: 22nd Mar 2023
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A phospholipid is any member of a large class of fatlike, phosphorus-containing compounds that serve critical structural and metabolic roles in living cells. Complex lipids include phospholipids, sphingolipids, glycolipids, and lipoproteins, and are distinguished from simple lipids (fats and waxes) and other fat-soluble cell components, mainly isoprenoids and steroids. Some individuals use the term phosphoglyceride to refer to a subset of phospholipids, while others use it as a synonym for phospholipid.

The example of phospholipids are Phosphatidylserine and Phosphatidylcholine, which are the important phospholipids and found in plasma membranes, which are referred to as phospholipid membranes.

Overview of Phospholipids

In general, phospholipids are composed of a phosphate group, two alcohols, and one or two fatty acids. One end of the molecule has a phosphate group and one alcohol; this end is polar, meaning it has an electric charge and attracts water (hydrophilic). On the other hand, fatty acids are neutral; they are hydrophobic and water-insoluble, but fat-soluble.

Phospholipids are important in membranes (phospholipid membrane) because of their amphipathic nature (containing both hydrophobic and hydrophilic groups); they form a two-layer structure called the lipid bilayer, with the polar head facing out on each surface to interact with water and the neutral "tails" driven inward and pointing toward one another. All cell membranes are built on a lipid bilayer, which is nearly impermeable to ions and most polar molecules. Many chemicals are carried through the membrane by proteins contained in the phospholipid matrix.

Types of Phospholipids

There are two types of phospholipids, which are listed below.

  • Glycerophospholipids

They are the most widely used form of phospholipids found in biological membranes, also called phospholipid membranes. It is made up of phospholipids produced from glycerol.

  • Sphingophospholipids

They are key components of myelin and can be found in large quantities in the brain and nervous system. It's composed of sphingosine and alcohol.

The example of phospholipids are Phosphatidylserine and Phosphatidylcholine, 

Properties of Phospholipids

  • They act as signal mediators.

  • They're amphipathic compounds.

  • They serve as anchors for proteins within cell membranes.

  • The majority of cell membranes are made up of them.

  • Bile and lipoproteins are made up of them.

Phospholipid Function

Let us discuss the phospholipid function here.

  • It controls the membrane's permeability.

  • It also plays a role in fat absorption from the gut.

  • It helps the mitochondria ETC (Electron Transport Chain).

  • Phospholipids help in the prevention of fat formation in the liver.

  • It is essential for the transfer and elimination of cholesterol from cells.

  • Proteins are connected to form the structural components of the cell membrane.

  • They act as surfactants in the respiratory system and also aid in the coagulation of blood cells.

  • It plays a role in the production of various lipoproteins, prostacyclins, prostaglandins, and thromboxanes.

Structure of Phospholipid Molecule

A phospholipid is an amphipathic molecule, meaning it has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic components. A single phospholipid molecule is made up of a phosphate group on one end, referred to as the "head," and two side-by-side chains of fatty acids, referred to as the "tails." The negatively charged phosphate group makes the head polar and hydrophilic, or "water loving." As a result, the phosphate heads are drawn to the water molecules in their environments.

The lipid tails, on the other hand, are uncharged, nonpolar, and hydrophobic, which means they are "water fearing."  A hydrophobic molecule repels and is also repelled by water. Saturated fatty acids make up some lipid tails, while unsaturated fatty acids make up others. This combination contributes to the fluidity of the constantly flowing tails.

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Characteristics of Phospholipids

Phospholipids are important components of the plasma membrane, which is the cell's outermost layer. They are made up of fatty acid chains attached to a glycerol backbone, just like fats. Phospholipids have two fatty acids that help form a diacylglycerol, unlike triglycerides, which have three. A modified phosphate group also occupies the third carbon of the glycerol backbone. A phosphate group attached to a diacylglycerol, on the other hand, does not qualify as a phospholipid.

This is a phosphatidate (diacylglycerol 3-phosphate), which is a phospholipid precursor. The phosphate group must be modified by an alcohol to qualify as a phospholipid. The phospholipids phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine are two important phospholipids found in plasma membranes.

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Phospholipid Molecule

A phospholipid is a molecule containing a glycerol backbone and two fatty acids linked, as well as a modified phosphate group. The addition of charged or polar chemical groups to the phosphate can change its properties. Choline and serine, two chemical groups that can alter phosphate. The hydroxyl group, which is represented in green, binds choline and serine to the phosphate group at the R position.

Biological and Phospholipid Membranes

A bilayer of phospholipids forms the cell membrane, which is made up of two adjacent layers. The phospholipids' fatty acid tails face inwards, away from the water, while the phosphate heads face outward, toward the water. Because the heads face outward, one layer is exposed to the cell's interior while the other is exposed to the outside. Because phosphate groups in the intracellular fluid are polar and hydrophilic, they are drawn to water.

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Phospholipid Bilayer

The phospholipid bilayer is made up of two adjacent phospholipid sheets that are arranged tail to tail. The hydrophobic tails interact with one another to generate the membrane's interior. The fluid inside and outside the cell is contacted by the polar heads.

The lipid bilayer works as a semipermeable membrane, allowing only lipophilic solutes to pass through due to the chemical and physical characteristics of phospholipids. As a result, each side of the membrane has two different aqueous compartments. Many biological activities, such as cell communication and metabolism, require this separation.

Membrane Fluidity

Proteins and other lipids (such as cholesterol) are contained within the phospholipid bilayer of a cell's plasma membrane. The unsaturated hydrophobic tails of phospholipid molecules prevent phospholipid molecules from packing together and forming a solid, which keeps biological membranes fluid.

When phospholipids are dropped into water, they form a micelle with their hydrophilic heads pointing toward the water. Micelles are lipid molecules that spherically form themselves in aqueous solution. Micelle production is a reaction to fatty acids' amphipathic nature, which means they have both hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions.

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Key Points

Let us know some key points on phospholipids here.

  • A glycerol molecule, two fatty acids, and an alcohol-modified phosphate group constitute phospholipids.

  • The phosphate group is a hydrophilic, negatively charged polar head.

  • Hydrophobicity is found in the uncharged, nonpolar tails of fatty acid chains.

  • Because the tails are hydrophobic, they face inward, away from the water, and meet in the membrane's inner region.

  • The hydrophilic heads are attracted to both intracellular and extracellular fluid and face outward.

  • Micelles are lipid molecules that form a spherical shape in aqueous solutions when phospholipids are mixed with water.

FAQs on Phospholipids

1. Discuss the applications of phospholipids.

For various reasons such as better bioavailability, reduced toxicity, and higher permeability across membranes, phospholipids have been frequently employed to make liposomal, ethosomal, and other nanoformulations of topical, oral, and parenteral medicines. Liposomes are often made up of phosphatidylcholine-rich phospholipids, although they can also contain surfactant-like mixed phospholipid chains.

The use of phospholipids in the ethosomal formulation of ketoconazole is a promising option for transdermal delivery in fungal infections. Lipidomics is being used to research these biomolecules and their conformations as a result of advances in phospholipid research.

2. List the groups of phospholipids.

The cephalins (phosphatidylethanolamine and phosphatidylserine) and lecithin phospholipid (phosphatidylcholine) are two groups of phospholipids found in plants and animals; lecithin phospholipid is the most numerous, but rare in microorganisms.

Plasmalogens, which are found in the brain and heart and appear to be rare in non animal tissues; phosphoinositides, which are found in the brain; and cardiolipin, which was originally isolated from the heart, are among the other phospholipids.