Glycolipids: Distribution and Biological Function


Glycolipids are amphiphilic components of cell membranes, composed of a hydrophilic polar sugar headgroup (backbone) and a hydrophobic apolar lipid moiety anchoring the molecule in the membrane. The sugar part may vary from small saccharide units to very large polysaccharide chains. According to their detailed chemical structure, in particular of the sugar part, these compounds may fulfil a variety of biological functions important for many processes in life. To these functions belong processes of recognition, adhesion and cell signalling as well as influence on membrane parameters such as fluidity and domain formation (lipid rafts). Furthermore, particular mammalian glycolipids may serve as transmitter and storage element of information, and others from bacterial origin belong to the strongest activators of the human immune system.

Key Concepts

  • Glycolipids are membrane‐bound compounds found in all living organisms.
  • In most Gram‐negative species, lipopolysaccharides form the outer leaflet of the outer membrane.
  • Complete lipopolysaccharides comprise the lipid A, core region and the O‐specific polysaccharide (O‐antigen).
  • Several Gram‐negative bacterial genera do not contain any LPS.
  • Major mycobacterial classes of glycolipids are glycopeptidolipids, trehalose‐containing lipooligosaccharides and phenolic glycolipids.
  • Plant glycolipids comprise esters of glucose and sucrose, steryl glycosides, glycosphingolipids and glycosyl diacylglycerols.

Keywords: glycolipids; storage diseases; membrane anchors; membrane domains; lipid rafts; lipopolysaccharide; mycobacteria

Figure 1. Chemical structures of (a) glucosyldiacylglycerol, (b) galactosylceramide, (c) ganglioside GM1 and (d) lipid part of bacterial deep rough mutant lipopolysaccharide from Escherichia coli.
Figure 2. Macroscopic current increase in an asymmetric planar phospholipid/lipopolysaccharide membrane after addition of 0.1% whole human serum as a result of the incorporation of complement C9 monomers. Bathing solution consisted of Hepes buffer including 0.1 mol L−1 KCl.
Figure 3. Structure of the backbone of glycopeptidolipids of M. avium. R = oligosaccharide residues that determine the serospecificity; R′ = H or CH3; x = 13–15, y = 7–11.
Figure 4. Chemical structure of phenolic glycolipid from M. leprae. R = long‐chain fatty acyl residue.
Figure 5. (a–c) Structures of glycosyl diacylglycerols from plants and (d) the structure of a novel galactolipid from oat seeds.
Figure 6. Chemical structure of a phytoglycolipid.
Figure 7. Chemical structure of a plant sterylglycoside.


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Brandenburg, Klaus, and Holst, Otto(Feb 2015) Glycolipids: Distribution and Biological Function. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001427.pub3]