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Common Lipids

Image credit: Eoin Fahy


Lipids are very diverse in both their respective structures and functions. These diverse compounds that make up the lipid family are so grouped because they are insoluble in water. They are however soluble in other organic solvents such as ether, acetone and other lipids. Major lipid groups include fats, phospholipids, steroids and waxes.

Lipids: Fats

Fats are composed of three fatty acids and glycerol. These triglycerides can be solid or liquid at room temperature. Those that are solid are classified as fats, while those that are liquid are known as oils. Fatty acids consist of a long chain of carbons with a carboxyl group at one end. Depending on their structure, fatty acids can be saturated or unsaturated. While fats have been denigrated to the point that many believe that fat should be eliminated from the diet, fat serves many useful purposes. Fats store energy, help to insulate the body and cushion and protect organs.

Lipids: Phospholipids

A phospholipid is composed of two fatty acids, a glycerol unit, a phosphate group and a polar molecule. The phosphate group and polar head region of the molecule is hydrophillic (attracted to water), while the fatty acid tail is hydrophobic (repelled by water). When placed in water, phospholipids will orient themselves into a bilayer in which the nonpolar tail region faces the inner area of the bilayer. The polar head region faces outward and interacts with the water. Phospholipids are a major component of cell membranes which enclose the cytoplasm and other contents of a cell.

Lipids: Steroids and Waxes

Steroids have a carbon backbone that consists of four fused ring-like structures. Steroids include cholesterol, sex hormones (progesterone, estrogen and testosterone) and cortisone. Waxes are comprised of an ester of a long-chain alcohol and a fatty acid. Many plants have leaves and fruits with wax coatings to help prevent water loss. Some animals also have wax-coated fur or feathers to repel water. Unlike most waxes, ear wax is composed of phospholipids and esters of cholesterol.

Organic Polymers

For information on other types of biological polymers, see:
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