Sphingolipids in mammalian cell signalling

Cell Mol Life Sci. 2001 Dec;58(14):2053-68. doi: 10.1007/PL00000836.


Sphingolipids and their metabolites, ceramide, sphingosine and sphingosine-1-phosphate, are involved in a variety of cellular processes including differentiation, cellular senescence, apoptosis and proliferation. Ceramide is the main second messenger, and is produced by sphingomyelinase-induced hydrolysis of sphingomyelin and by de novo synthesis. Many stimuli, e. g. growth factors, cytokines, G protein-coupled receptor agonists and stress (UV irradiation) increase cellular ceramide levels. Sphingomyelin in the plasma membrane is located primarily in the outer (extracellular) leaflet of the bilayer, whilst sphingomyelinases are found at the inner (cytosolic) face and within lysosomes/endosomes. Such cellular compartmentalisation restricts the site of ceramide production and subsequent interaction with target proteins. Glycosphingolipids and sphingomyelin together with cholesterol are major components of specialised membrane microdomains known as lipid rafts, which are involved in receptor aggregation and immune responses. Many signalling molecules, for example Src family tyrosine kinases and glycosylinositolphosphate-anchored proteins, are associated with rafts, and disruption of these domains affects cellular responses such as apoptosis. Sphingosine and sphingosine-1-phosphate derived from ceramide are also signalling molecules. In particular, sphingosine-1-phosphate is involved in proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis. Sphingosine-1-phosphate can act both extracellularly through endothelial-differentiating gene (EDG) family G protein-coupled receptors and intracellularly through direct interactions with target proteins. The importance of sphingolipid signalling in cardiovascular development has been reinforced by recent reports implicating EDG receptors in the regulation of embryonic cardiac and vascular morphogenesis.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caveolae / metabolism
  • Cell Communication / physiology*
  • Ceramides / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lysophospholipids*
  • Membrane Microdomains / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Sphingolipids / metabolism*
  • Sphingomyelins / metabolism
  • Sphingosine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Sphingosine / metabolism


  • Ceramides
  • Lysophospholipids
  • Sphingolipids
  • Sphingomyelins
  • sphingosine 1-phosphate
  • Sphingosine