Structure, function, and dietary regulation of delta6, delta5, and delta9 desaturases

Annu Rev Nutr. 2004:24:345-76. doi: 10.1146/annurev.nutr.24.121803.063211.


Fatty acid desaturases introduce a double bond in a specific position of long-chain fatty acids, and are conserved across kingdoms. Degree of unsaturation of fatty acids affects physical properties of membrane phospholipids and stored triglycerides. In addition, metabolites of polyunsaturated fatty acids are used as signaling molecules in many organisms. Three desaturases, Delta9, Delta6, and Delta5, are present in humans. Delta-9 catalyzes synthesis of monounsaturated fatty acids. Oleic acid, a main product of Delta9 desaturase, is the major fatty acid in mammalian adipose triglycerides, and is also used for phospholipid and cholesteryl ester synthesis. Delta-6 and Delta5 desaturases are required for the synthesis of highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFAs), which are mainly esterified into phospholipids and contribute to maintaining membrane fluidity. While HUFAs may be required for cold tolerance in plants and fish, the primary role of HUFAs in mammals is cell signaling. Arachidonic acid is required as substrates for eicosanoid synthesis, while docosahexaenoic acid is required in visual and neuronal functions. Desaturases in mammals are regulated at the transcriptional level. Reflecting overlapping functions, three desaturases share a common mechanism of a feedback regulation to maintain products in membrane phospholipids. At the same time, regulation of Delta9 desaturase differs from Delta6 and Delta5 desaturases because its products are incorporated into more diverse lipid groups. Combinations of multiple transcription factors achieve this sophisticated differential regulation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Delta-5 Fatty Acid Desaturase
  • Fatty Acid Desaturases / chemistry*
  • Fatty Acid Desaturases / physiology*
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6 / metabolism
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Stearoyl-CoA Desaturase / chemistry
  • Stearoyl-CoA Desaturase / physiology


  • Delta-5 Fatty Acid Desaturase
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated
  • Fatty Acid Desaturases
  • Stearoyl-CoA Desaturase
  • FADS2 protein, human