Omega-3 fatty acids in cellular membranes: a unified concept

Prog Lipid Res. 2004 Sep;43(5):383-402. doi: 10.1016/j.plipres.2004.05.004.


The Omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, 22:6) and its sister molecule EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid, 20:5) are highlighted here. These highly unsaturated fatty acids are widespread in nature, especially in the marine environment, and are essential in membranes ranging from deep sea bacteria to human neurons. Studies of DHA/EPA in bacteria have led to a working model on the structural roles of these molecules and are described in this review. The main points are: (a) genomic analysis shows that genes encoding the DHA/EPA pathways are similar, supporting the idea that structural roles in bacteria might be similar, (b) biochemical analysis shows that DHA and EPA are produced in bacteria by a polyketide process distinct from the pathway of plants and animals; this allows DHA and EPA to be produced in anaerobic or oxygen-limited environments, (c) regulatory systems triggered by temperature and pressure have been identified and studied, and add to the understanding of the roles of these molecules, (d) DHA/EPA bacteria are located almost exclusively in the marine environment, raising the prospect of an important linkage between membrane processes and marine conditions, (e) physiological studies of an EPA recombinant of E. coli show that EPA phospholipids contribute essential fluidity to the bilayer and that an EPA-enriched membrane supports a respiratory lifestyle dependent on proton bioenergetics; the EPA recombinant displays other physiological properties likely attributed to high levels of EPA in the bilayer, and (f) chemical studies such as chemical dynamic modeling support the idea that DHA and presumably EPA contribute hyperfluidizing properties to the membrane. We hypothesize that DHA/EPA phospholipids contribute fluidity and other properties to the bilayer which distinguish these highly unsaturated chains from monounsaturates and polyunsaturates such as 18:2 and 18:3. We further hypothesize that the structural properties of DHA/EPA functioning in bacteria are also harnessed by higher organisms for enhancing crucial membrane processes including photosynthesis and energy transduction.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / physiology*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / metabolism
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / physiology
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / genetics
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Membrane Fluidity / physiology
  • Membrane Lipids / genetics
  • Membrane Lipids / physiology


  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Membrane Lipids
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid