Fatty AcidsBiosynthetic

The lipids are a large and diverse group of naturally occurring organic compounds that are related by their solubility in nonpolar organic solvents (e.g. ether, chloroform, acetone & benzene) and general insolubility in water. There is great structural variety among the lipids, as will be demonstrated in the following sections. You may click on a topic listed below, or proceed page by page.

You are watching: A family of organic compounds soluble in organic solvents but not in water is called:

Fatty Acids

The common feature of these lipids is that they are all esters of moderate to long chain fatty acids. Acid or base-catalyzed hydrolysis yields the component fatty acid, some examples of which are given in the following table, together with the alcohol component of the lipid. These long-chain carboxylic acids are generally referred to by their common names, which in most cases reflect their sources. Natural fatty acids may be saturated or unsaturated, and as the following data indicate, the saturated acids have higher melting points than unsaturated acids of corresponding size. The double bonds in the unsaturated compounds listed on the right are all cis (or Z).


Common Name

Melting Point



lauric acid 45 ºC
CH3(CH2)12CO2H myristic acid 55 ºC
CH3(CH2)14CO2H palmitic acid 63 ºC
CH3(CH2)16CO2H stearic acid 69 ºC
CH3(CH2)18CO2H arachidic acid 76 ºC


Common Name

Melting Point



palmitoleic acid 0 ºC
CH3(CH2)7CH=CH(CH2)7CO2H oleic acid 13 ºC
CH3(CH2)4CH=CHCH2CH=CH(CH2)7CO2H linoleic acid -5 ºC
CH3CH2CH=CHCH2CH=CHCH2CH=CH(CH2)7CO2H linolenic acid -11 ºC
CH3(CH2)4(CH=CHCH2)4(CH2)2CO2H arachidonic acid -49 ºC

The higher melting points of the saturated fatty acids reflect the uniform rod-like shape of their molecules. The cis-double bond(s) in the unsaturated fatty acids introduce a kink in their shape, which makes it more difficult to pack their molecules together in a stable repeating array or crystalline lattice. The trans-double bond isomer of oleic acid, known as elaidic acid, has a linear shape and a melting point of 45 ºC (32 ºC higher than its cis isomer). The shapes of stearic and oleic acids are displayed in the models below. You may examine models of these compounds by clicking on the desired model picture.


stearic acid

oleic acid

Two polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic, are designated "essential" because their absence in the human diet has been associated with health problems, such as scaley skin, stunted growth and increased dehydration. These acids are also precursors to the prostaglandins, a family of physiologically potent lipids present in minute amounts in most body tissues.

Because of their enhanced acidity, carboxylic acids react with bases to form ionic salts, as shown in the following equations. In the case of alkali metal hydroxides and simple amines (or ammonia) the resulting salts have pronounced ionic character and are usually soluble in water. Heavy metals such as silver, mercury and lead form salts having more covalent character (3rd example), and the water solubility is reduced, especially for acids composed of four or more carbon atoms.

RCO2H + NaHCO3 RCO2(–) Na(+) + CO2 + H2O
RCO2H + (CH3)3N: RCO2(–) (CH3)3NH(+)
RCO2H + AgOH RCO2δ(–) Agδ(+) + H2O

Unusual Fatty Acids: Nature has constructed a remarkable variety of fatty acid derivatives. To see some of these compounds Click Here.

Soaps and Detergents

Carboxylic acids and salts having alkyl chains longer than eight carbons exhibit unusual behavior in water due to the presence of both hydrophilic (CO2) and hydrophobic (alkyl) regions in the same molecule. Such molecules are termed amphiphilic (Gk. amphi = both) or amphipathic.


Fatty acids made up of ten or more carbon atoms are nearly insoluble in water, and because of their lower density, float on the surface when mixed with water. Unlike paraffin or other alkanes, which tend to puddle on the waters surface, these fatty acids spread evenly over an extended water surface, eventually forming a monomolecular layer in which the polar carboxyl groups are hydrogen bonded at the water interface, and the hydrocarbon chains are aligned together away from the water. This behavior is illustrated in the diagram on the right. Substances that accumulate at water surfaces and change the surface properties are called surfactants.

Alkali metal salts of fatty acids are more soluble in water than the acids themselves, and the amphiphilic character of these substances also make them strong surfactants. The most common examples of such compounds are soaps and detergents, four of which are shown below. Note that each of these molecules has a nonpolar hydrocarbon chain, the "tail", and a polar (often ionic) "head group". The use of such compounds as cleaning agents is facilitated by their surfactant character, which lowers the surface tension of water, allowing it to penetrate and wet a variety of materials.



Very small amounts of these surfactants dissolve in water to give a random dispersion of solute molecules. However, when the concentration is increased an interesting change occurs. The surfactant molecules reversibly assemble into polymolecular aggregates called micelles. By gathering the hydrophobic chains together in the center of the micelle, disruption of the hydrogen bonded structure of liquid water is minimized, and the polar head groups extend into the surrounding water where they participate in hydrogen bonding. These micelles are often spherical in shape, but may also assume cylindrical and branched forms, as illustrated on the right. Here the polar head group is designated by a blue circle, and the nonpolar tail is a zig-zag black line.

An animated display of micelle formation is presented below. Notice the brownish material in the center of the three-dimensional drawing on the left. This illustrates a second important factor contributing to the use of these amphiphiles as cleaning agents. Micelles are able to encapsulate nonpolar substances such as grease within their hydrophobic center, and thus solubilize it so it is removed with the wash water. Since the micelles of anionic amphiphiles have a negatively charged surface, they repel one another and the nonpolar dirt is effectively emulsified. To summarize, the presence of a soap or a detergent in water facilitates the wetting of all parts of the object to be cleaned, and removes water-insoluble dirt by incorporation in micelles. If the animation has stopped, it may be restarted by clicking on it.


The oldest amphiphilic cleaning agent known to humans is soap. Soap is manufactured by the base-catalyzed hydrolysis (saponification) of animal fat (see below). Before sodium hydroxide was commercially available, a boiling solution of potassium carbonate leached from wood ashes was used. Soft potassium soaps were then converted to the harder sodium soaps by washing with salt solution. The importance of soap to human civilization is documented by history, but some problems associated with its use have been recognized. One of these is caused by the weak acidity (pKaca. 4.9) of the fatty acids. Solutions of alkali metal soaps are slightly alkaline (pH 8 to 9) due to hydrolysis. If the pH of a soap solution is lowered by acidic contaminants, insoluble fatty acids precipitate and form a scum. A second problem is caused by the presence of calcium and magnesium salts in the water supply (hard water). These divalent cations cause aggregation of the micelles, which then deposit as a dirty scum. These problems have been alleviated by the development of synthetic amphiphiles called detergents (or syndets). By using a much stronger acid for the polar head group, water solutions of the amphiphile are less sensitive to pH changes. Also the sulfonate functions used for virtually all anionic detergents confer greater solubility on micelles incorporating the alkaline earth cations found in hard water. Variations on the amphiphile theme have led to the development of other classes, such as the cationic and nonionic detergents shown above. Cationic detergents often exhibit germicidal properties, and their ability to change surface pH has made them useful as fabric softeners and hair conditioners. These versatile ptcouncil.netical "tools" have dramatically transformed the household and personal care cleaning product markets over the past fifty years.

Fats and Oils

The triesters of fatty acids with glycerol (1,2,3-trihydroxypropane) compose the class of lipids known as fats and oils. These triglycerides (or triacylglycerols) are found in both plants and animals, and compose one of the major food groups of our diet. Triglycerides that are solid or semisolid at room temperature are classified as fats, and occur predominantly in animals. Those triglycerides that are liquid are called oils and originate chiefly in plants, although triglycerides from fish are also largely oils. Some examples of the composition of triglycerides from various sources are given in the following table.

Saturated Acids (%)

Unsaturated Acids (%)


C10 & less C12 lauric C14 myristic C16 palmitic C18 stearic C18 oleic C18 linoleic C18 unsaturated butter lard human fat herring oil coconut corn olive palm peanut safflower

Animal Fats

15 2 11 30 9 27 4 1
- - 1 27 15 48 6 2
- 1 3 25 8 46 10 3
- - 7 12 1 2 20 52

Plant Oils

- 50 18 8 2 6 1 -
- - 1 10 3 50 34 -
- - - 7 2 85 5 -
- - 2 41 5 43 7 -
- - - 8 3 56 26 7
- - - 3 3 19 76 -

As might be expected from the properties of the fatty acids, fats have a predominance of saturated fatty acids, and oils are composed largely of unsaturated acids. Thus, the melting points of triglycerides reflect their composition, as shown by the following examples. Natural mixed triglycerides have somewhat lower melting points, the melting point of lard being near 30 º C, whereas olive oil melts near -6 º C. Since fats are valued over oils by some Northern European and North American populations, vegetable oils are extensively converted to solid triglycerides (e.g. Crisco) by partial hydrogenation of their unsaturated components. Some of the remaining double bonds are isomerized (to trans) in this operation. These saturated and trans-fatty acid glycerides in the diet have been linked to long-term health issues such as atherosclerosis.


Triglycerides having three identical acyl chains, such as tristearin and triolein (above), are called "simple", while those composed of different acyl chains are called "mixed". If the acyl chains at the end hydroxyl groups (1 & 3) of glycerol are different, the center carbon becomes a chiral center and enantiomeric configurations must be recognized.

The hydrogenation of vegetable oils to produce semisolid products has had unintended consequences. Although the hydrogenation imparts desirable features such as spreadability, texture, "mouth feel," and increased shelf life to naturally liquid vegetable oils, it introduces some serious health problems. These occur when the cis-double bonds in the fatty acid chains are not completely saturated in the hydrogenation process. The catalysts used to effect the addition of hydrogen isomerize the remaining double bonds to their trans configuration. These unnatural trans-fats appear to to be associated with increased heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, as well as immune response and reproductive problems.


Phospholipids are the main constituents of cell membranes. They resemble the triglycerides in being ester or amide derivatives of glycerol or sphingosine with fatty acids and phosphoric acid. The phosphate moiety of the resulting phosphatidic acid is further esterified with ethanolamine, choline or serine in the phospholipid itself. The following diagram shows the structures of some of these components. Clicking on the diagram will change it to display structures for two representative phospholipids. Note that the fatty acid components (R & R") may be saturated or unsaturated. To see a model of a phospholipid Click Here.


As ionic amphiphiles, phospholipids aggregate or self-assemble when mixed with water, but in a different manner than the soaps and detergents. Because of the two pendant alkyl chains present in phospholipids and the unusual mixed charges in their head groups, micelle formation is unfavorable relative to a bilayer structure. If a phospholipid is smeared over a small hole in a thin piece of plastic immersed in water, a stable planar bilayer of phospholipid molecules is created at the hole. As shown in the following diagram, the polar head groups on the faces of the bilayer contact water, and the hydrophobic alkyl chains form a nonpolar interior. The phospholipid molecules can move about in their half the bilayer, but there is a significant energy barrier preventing migration to the other side of the bilayer. To see an enlarged segment of a phospholipid bilayer Click Here.

This bilayer membrane structure is also found in aggregate structures called liposomes. Liposomes are microscopic vesicles consisting of an aqueous core enclosed in one or more phospholipid layers. They are formed when phospholipids are vigorously mixed with water. Unlike micelles, liposomes have both aqueous interiors and exteriors.


A cell may be considered a very complex liposome. The bilayer membrane that separates the interior of a cell from the surrounding fluids is largely composed of phospholipids, but it incorporates many other components, such as cholesterol, that contribute to its structural integrity. Protein channels that permit the transport of various kinds of ptcouncil.netical species in and out of the cell are also important components of cell membranes. A very nice dynamic display of the gramicidin channel has been created by a collaboration of Canadian, French, Spanish and US scientists, and may be examined by Clicking Here.

The interior of a cell contains a variety of structures (organelles) that conduct ptcouncil.netical operations vital to the cells existence. Molecules bonded to the surfaces of cells serve to identify specific cells and facilitate interaction with external ptcouncil.netical entities. The sphingomyelins are also membrane lipids. They are the major component of the myelin sheath surrounding nerve fibers. Multiple Sclerosis is a devastating disease in which the myelin sheath is lost, causing eventual paralysis.

Prostaglandins Thromboxanes & Leukotrienes

The members of this group of structurally related natural hormones have an extraordinary range of biological effects. They can lower gastric secretions, stimulate uterine contractions, lower blood pressure, influence blood clotting and induce asthma-like allergic responses. Because their genesis in body tissues is tied to the metabolism of the essential fatty acid arachadonic acid (5,8,11,14-eicosatetraenoic acid) they are classified as eicosanoids. Many properties of the common drug aspirin result from its effect on the cascade of reactions associated with these hormones. The metabolic pathways by which arachidonic acid is converted to the various eicosanoids are complex and will not be discussed here. A rough outline of some of the transformations that take place is provided below. It is helpful to view arachadonic acid in the coiled conformation shown in the shaded box.

See more: How Did The Spanish Explorers Save Gas, Graph Answer Key


Leukotriene A is a precursor to other leukotriene derivatives by epoxide opening reactions. The prostaglandins are given systematic names that reflect their structure. The initially formed peroxide PGH2 is a common intermediate to other prostaglandins, as well as thromboxanes such as TXA2. To see a model of prostaglandin PGE2 Click Here.