Plant Sphingolipids


Sphingolipids, a class of amino alcohol‐based lipids, are major eukaryotic lipids, and they have also been found in some prokaryotes. Since the discovery of sphingolipids by Johann Ludwig Thudichum in 1874, this class of lipids is now less enigmatic, and to date, we have a much better understanding of how they are metabolised, their structural diversity and the roles they play in regulating eukaryotic cellular processes and physiology. Our understanding of the functional roles of sphingolipids in cells has come largely from studies using mammalian cells and yeast. However, in the past 20 years, we have made great strides in our understanding of plant sphingolipid metabolism, structure and function. Readers are encouraged to refer to the relevant literature for further detailed information.

Key Concepts

  • Sphingolipids are major eukaryotic lipids, and they have been shown to be important in membrane organisation, as well as playing key roles in regulating cellular physiology.
  • The de novo biosynthesis of sphingolipids in all eukaryotes begins in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and is catalysed by the pyridoxal 5′‐phosphate (PLP)‐dependent serine palmitoyltransferase (SPT), resulting in the formation of long‐chain bases (LCBs).
  • The LCBs can undergo further metabolism to form more complex sphingolipids, such as ceramides, glucosylceramides and glycosyl inositolphosphoceramides (GIPCs).
  • In addition to the de novo pathway, all eukaryotes also possess the salvage pathway whereby LCBs are recovered from ceramides, and key to this salvage pathway is a class of enzymes known as ceramidases.
  • Plant sphingolipids have been shown to function in membrane organisation, abiotic and biotic stress responses, regulation of developmental processes and plant physiology.

Keywords: sphingolipids; lipid microdomains; GIPCs; ceramides; sphingolipid metabolism; structural diversity; sphingolipidome

Figure 1. Schematic representation of the sphingolipid metabolic pathway in mammals, fungi and plants. The first steps in the de novo synthesis of sphingolipids up to the formation of dihydroceramides are conserved in all eukaryotes.
Figure 2. Schematic representation of complex sphingolipids from plants. The general structure of complex sphingolipids is based on a hydrophobic dihydroceramide core and a hydrophilic head group. The dihydroceramide core comprises two moieties, a long‐chain base (LCB) and a variable chain length fatty acid linked via an amide bond. Cer, ceramide; GlcCer, glucosylceramide; IPC, inositol phosphoceramide; GIPC, glucosyl inositolphosphoceramide.
Figure 3. Structures of some C18 long‐chain bases (LCBs) in plants. The trivial names, systematic names according to IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry) regulations and shorthand designations are given for each LCB.
Figure 4. (a) Model for GIPC binding to NLP (cytolysin). NLPs (cytolysins) bind to the terminal hexoses of both monocot and eudicot GIPCs. Due to the longer sugar groups (three terminal hexoses) in monocots, the bound NLP (cytolysin) is too distant from the plasma membrane compared to bound NLP (cytolysin) in eudicots, where they are able to physically interact with the plasma membrane and accumulate, leading to subsequent accumulation. (b) Proposed model for salt sensing in plants involving GIPCs. GIPCs function as monovalent ion receptors and through binding of their cognate monovalent ions physically interact with calcium channels, thereby activating calcium influx.


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Further Reading

Corbacho J, Inês C, Oaredes MA, et al. (2018) Modulation of sphingolipid long‐chain base composition and gene expression during early olive‐fruit development, and putative role of brassinosteroid. Journal of Plant Physiology 231: 383–392.

Geiger O, Padilla‐Gómez J and López‐Laran IM (2019) Bacterial sphingolipids and sulfonolipids. In: Geiger O (ed.) Biogenesis of Fatty Acids, Lipids and Membranes, Handbook of Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology. Springer: Cham.

Germain V, Perraki A and Mongrand S (2012) Lipid rafts. In: eLS. Wiley: Chichester.

Gronnier J, Legrand A, Loquet A, et al. (2019) Mechanisms governing subcompartmentalization of biological membranes. Current Opinions in Plant Biology 52: 114–123.

Liu NJ, Zhang T, Liu ZH, et al. (2020) Phytosphinganine affects plasmodesmata permeability via facilitating PDLP5‐stimulated callose accumulation in Arabidopsis. Molecular Plant 13: 128–143. DOI: 10.1016/j.molp.2019.10.013.

Ren J and Hannun YA (2019) Metabolism and roles of sphingolipids in yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In: Geiger O (ed.) Biogenesis of Fatty Acids, Lipids and Membranes, Handbook of Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology. Springer: Cham.

Rolando M and Buchrieser C (2019) A comprehensive review on the manipulation of the sphingolipid pathway by pathogenic bacteria. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology 7: 168.

Rugen MD, Vernet MMJL, Hantouti L, et al. (2018) A chemical genetic screen reveals that iminosugar inhibitors of plant glucosylceramide synthase inhibit root growth in Arabidopsis and cereals. Scientific Report 8: 16421.

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Belton, Samuel, and Ng, Carl KY(May 2020) Plant Sphingolipids. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028909]