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J Lipid Res. 1998 Mar;39(3):467-81.

Fatty acid transport: difficult or easy?

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Department of Biophysics, Center for Advanced Biomedical Research, Boston University School of Medicine, MA 02118, USA.


Transport of unesterified fatty acids (FA) into cells has been viewed either as a simple diffusion process regulated mainly by lipid physical chemistry or as a more complex process involving protein catalysis. In this review FA transport in cell membranes is broken down into three essential steps: adsorption, transmembrane movement, and desorption. The physical properties of FA in aqueous, membrane, and protein environments relevant to transport mechanisms are discussed, with emphasis on recent information derived from NMR and fluorescence studies. Because of their low solubility in water and high hydrophobicity, FA bind rapidly and avidly to model membranes (phospholipid bilayers); if albumin is a donor, FA desorb rapidly to reach their equilibrium distribution between the membrane and albumin. The ionization properties of FA in a phospholipid bilayer result in a high population of the un-ionized form (approximately 50%) at pH 7.4, which diffuses across the lipid bilayer (flip-flops) rapidly (t(1/2) < 1 sec). Desorption of FA from a phospholipid surface is slower than transmembrane movement and dependent on the FA chain length and unsaturation, but is rapid for typical dietary FA. These physical properties of FA in model systems predict that proteins are not essential for transport of FA through membranes. The only putative FA transport protein to be purified and reconstituted into phospholipid bilayers, the mitochondrial uncoupling protein (UCP1), was shown to transport the FA anion in response to FA flip-flop. New experiments with cells have found that FA movement into cells acidifies the cytosol, as predicted by the flip-flop model.

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