The under-appreciated fats of life: The two types of polyunsaturated fats

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Journal of Experimental Biology


There are two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids (i.e. fats that contain multiple carbon-carbon double bonds) – omega-6 and omega-3. They are not interconvertible, and they contribute ‘double-bonded carbons’ to different depths in bilayer membranes, with different effects on membrane processes. This Commentary emphasises the importance of these fats for biological membrane function and examines their evolution and biochemistry. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are separately essential in the diet of animals, and they pass up the food chain largely from plants, with ‘seeds’ being a prevalent source of omega-6, and ‘leaves’ a prevalent source of omega-3. The dietary balance between these fatty acids has a strong influence on membrane composition. Although this aspect of diet has been little investigated outside of the biomedical field, emerging evidence shows it can alter important physiological capacities of animals (e.g. exercise endurance and adiposity), which has implications for activities such as avian migration and hibernation and torpor, as well as significant implications for human health. This Commentary will focus on the separate effects of omega-3 and omega-6 on membrane properties and will emphasise the importance of the balance between these two fatty acids in determining the function of biological membranes; I hope to convince the reader that fats should be considered first and foremost as the basic unit of biological membranes, and secondarily as a means of energy storage.

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