Vitamin E and its function in membranes

Prog Lipid Res. 1999 Jul;38(4):309-36. doi: 10.1016/s0163-7827(99)00008-9.


Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin. It is comprised of a family of hydrocarbon compounds characterised by a chromanol ring with a phytol side chain referred to as tocopherols and tocotrienols. Tocopherols possess a saturated phytol side chain whereas the side chain of tocotrienols have three unsaturated residues. Isomers of these compounds are distinguished by the number and arrangement of methyl substituents attached to the chromanol ring. The predominant isomer found in the body is alpha-tocopherol, which has three methyl groups in addition to the hydroxyl group attached to the benzene ring. The diet of animals is comprised of different proportions of tocopherol isomers and specific alpha-tocopherol-binding proteins are responsible for retention of this isomer in the cells and tissues of the body. Because of the lipophilic properties of the vitamin it partitions into lipid storage organelles and cell membranes. It is, therefore, widely distributed in throughout the body. Subcellular distribution of alpha-tocopherol is not uniform with lysosomes being particularly enriched in the vitamin compared to other subcellular membranes. Vitamin E is believed to be involved in a variety of physiological and biochemical functions. The molecular mechanism of these functions is believed to be mediated by either the antioxidant action of the vitamin or by its action as a membrane stabiliser. alpha-Tocopherol is an efficient scavenger of lipid peroxyl radicals and, hence, it is able to break peroxyl chain propagation reactions. The unpaired electron of the tocopheroxyl radical thus formed tends to be delocalised rendering the radical more stable. The radical form may be converted back to alpha-tocopherol in redox cycle reactions involving coenzyme Q. The regeneration of alpha-tocopherol from its tocopheroxyloxyl radical greatly enhances the turnover efficiency of alpha-tocopherol in its role as a lipid antioxidant. Vitamin E forms complexes with the lysophospholipids and free fatty acids liberated by the action of membrane lipid hydrolysis. Both these products form 1:1 stoichiometric complexes with vitamin E and as a consequence the overall balance of hydrophobic:hydrophillic affinity within the membrane is restored. In this way, vitamin E is thought to negate the detergent-like properties of the hydrolytic products that would otherwise disrupt membrane stability. The location and arrangement of vitamin E in biological membranes is presently unknown. There is, however, a considerable body of information available from studies of model membrane systems consisting of phospholipids dispersed in aqueous systems. From such studies using a variety of biophysical methods, it has been shown that alpha-tocopherol intercalates into phospholipid bilayers with the long axis of the molecule oriented parallel to the lipid hydrocarbon chains. The molecule is able to rotate about its long axis and diffuse laterally within fluid lipid bilayers. The vitamin does not distribute randomly throughout phospholipid bilayers but forms complexes of defined stoichiometry which coexist with bilayers of pure phospholipid. alpha-Tocopherol preferentially forms complexes with phosphatidylethanolamines rather than phosphatidylcholines, and such complexes more readily form nonlamellar structures. The fact that alpha-tocopherol does not distribute randomly throughout bilayers of phospholipid and tends to form nonbilayer complexes with phosphatidylethanolamines would be expected to reduce the efficiency of the vitamin in its action as a lipid antioxidant and to destabilise rather than stabilise membranes. The apparent disparity between putative functions of vitamin E in biological membranes and the behaviour in model membranes will need to be reconciled.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / metabolism*
  • Biological Transport
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Free Radical Scavengers / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Phosphatidylcholines / metabolism
  • Phosphatidylethanolamines / metabolism
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Tissue Distribution
  • Vitamin E / chemistry
  • Vitamin E / metabolism*


  • Antioxidants
  • Free Radical Scavengers
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Phosphatidylethanolamines
  • Vitamin E