Overview of Glycolipids

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Chapter: Biochemistry : Phospholipid, Glycosphingolipid, and Eicosanoid Metabolism

Glycolipids are molecules that contain both carbohydrate and lipid components. Like the phospholipid sphingomyelin, glycolipids are derivatives of ceramides in which a long-chain fatty acid is attached to the amino alcohol sphingosine.


OVERVIEW OF GLYCOLIPIDS

Glycolipids are molecules that contain both carbohydrate and lipid components. Like the phospholipid sphingomyelin, glycolipids are derivatives of ceramides in which a long-chain fatty acid is attached to the amino alcohol sphingosine. They are, therefore, more precisely called glycosphingolipids. [Note: Ceramides, then, are the precursors of both phosphorylated and glycosylated sphingolipids.] Like the phospholipids, glycosphingolipids are essential components of all membranes in the body, but they are found in greatest amounts in nerve tissue. They are located in the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane, where they interact with the extracellular environment. As such, they play a role in the regulation of cellular interactions (for example, adhesion and recognition), growth, and development.

Membrane glycosphingolipids associate with cholesterol and GPI-anchored proteins to form lipid rafts, laterally mobile microdomains of the plasma membrane that function to organize and regulate signaling and trafficking functions of membranes. 

Glycosphingolipids are antigenic and are the source of blood group antigens, various embryonic antigens specific for particular stages of fetal development, and some tumor antigens. [Note: The carbohydrate portion of a glycolipid is the antigenic determinant.] They also are used as cell surface receptors for cholera and tetanus toxins as well as for certain viruses and microbes. Genetic disorders associated with an inability to properly degrade the glycosphingolipids result in lysosomal accumulation of these compounds. [Note: Changes in the carbohydrate portion of glycosphingolipids (and glycoproteins) are characteristic of transformed cells (cells with dysregulated growth).]


Figure 17.14 Structure of a neutral glycosphingolipid, galactocerebroside. (  is a hydrophobic hydrocarbon chain.)

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