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What is a Sphingolipid?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 21, 2024
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A sphingolipid is a fat-soluble molecule that is derived from an amino alcohol with an unsaturated hydrocarbon chain. The fat-soluble molecule is a lipid specifically made from the 18-carbon sphingosine and is a major component in cell membranes. The amino alcohol itself is considered aliphatic, which means it forms a stable ring shape known as an aromatic.

The sphingolipid is considered to be a ceramide, meaning it is a combination of sphingosine and a fatty acid linked together. Various types of sphingolipids can be created within cells, each performing a specific function. Sphingomyelin is located in the cell membrane of the myelin sheath on neurons. Glycosphingolipids are found in the cell membrane of muscle tissue. Gangliosides are a sphingolipid linked with a sugar chain such as sialic acid and found in the plasma membrane of a cell.

The main function of a sphingolipid is to protect the surface of a cell from various factors that may cause harm. They form a stable and resistant outer shell that reacts both mechanically and chemically to exterior materials. Depending on the cell, a sphingolipid is paramount to the process of cell recognition and signaling. This occurs when other lipids or proteins are present in neighboring cells.

The creation of sphingolipids begins in the endoplasmic reticulum and completed upon connection with the Golgi apparatus. They are modified throughout the course by plasma membranes and endosomes. The cytosol ultimately transports the sphingolipids to the cell membrane. According to researchers, an interesting fact about sphingolipids is that they are completely absent from the mitochondria.

The main research performed on the sphingolipid is conducted on yeast. This is due to the small size of the organism and available access to its cell base. In addition, yeast cells such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae can easily be substituted for a mammalian cell in the laboratory. This provides researchers the ability to conduct both lethal and non-lethal experiments on the cell with little or no impact to humans or other animals.

Various disorders can occur in the human body due to both the lack of or over-abundance of sphingolipids. These disorders are known as sphingolipidoses and can constitute very harmful neurological implications. The most common of these disorders is known as Gaucher's disease. When Gaucher's disease is present, fatty materials coalesce in the internal organs, brain and bones. Another prominent disorder is Fabry's disease, which causes fatigue and kidney failure. This usually only occurs in males.

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Discussion Comments
By anon280984 — On Jul 21, 2012

Sphingolipids are molecules present in almost all eukaryotic cells, even unicellular parasites and in some bacterias. So, they are very important kind of lipids, not only because they are part of membrane cell, but also because they can control cellular responses.

By indigomoth — On Oct 01, 2011

We covered sphingolipids briefly in one of my science classes and I don't remember much about them. Just that they are a kind of lipid that is involved in the cell membrane, and that there are diseases that happen when someone doesn't produce enough of them (but that's true of almost anything!).

What I do remember is that they were discovered originally in brain tissue a long time ago. And that people weren't sure what they were, or what their function was, so they were called sphingolipids after the Sphinx, because they were mysterious!

I think it sounded like someone got a chance to name something and decided to make it memorable.

By lluviaporos — On Sep 30, 2011

@anon139148 - I believe sphingolipids are present in most animal cells, and even in plant cells. The fact that scientists think it worth noting that they are not present in mitochrondria (which some consider to be an ancient kind of cell) means that they must be an almost universal component of cells.

As it says in the article, research on sphingolipids is conducted on yeast cells as they are more simple and easier to study than mammal cells, as well as taking away any ethical problem with the research.

I'm not sure if you mean chicken eggs, or human eggs, but either way I think sphingolipids are probably present.

By anon139148 — On Jan 03, 2011

Do eggs have sphingolipids?

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