Physical Properties of Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are aliphatic organic acids with the fundamental structure CH3(CH2)nCOOH, where n can range from zero to more than 26. Thus, fatty acids range from the shortest, acetic acid (2:0), to the very long-chain fatty acids containing 26 or more carbon atoms (e.g., 26:0). Although fatty acids with an odd number of carbon atoms exist in nature, most common fatty acids have an even number. The most abundant fatty acids in human lipids and in dietary lipids are the long-chain fatty acids 16:0 (palmitic acid) and 18:1n-9 (oleic acid) (Figure 1). The hydrophobic nature of the hydrocarbon chain of fatty acids containing more than eight carbon atoms renders them quite insoluble in aqueous media. It has been estimated that for every two additional carbon atoms in the fatty-acid chain its solubility decreases 10-fold.

Owing to the poor solubility of the most abundant fatty acids, free (non-esterified) fatty acids are often found associated with binding and/or transport proteins. Serum albumin has at least six binding sites for fatty acids and is the primary transporter of these molecules through the bloodstream. Several low-molecular-weight fatty-acid binding proteins have been identified and implicated in the intracel-lular transport of free fatty acids. While free fatty acids can associate with lipophilic cellular and organellar membranes, concentrations of these non-esterified compounds in membranes are typically very low.

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