The role of alterations in membrane lipid composition in enabling physiological adaptation of organisms to their physical environment

Prog Lipid Res. 1990;29(3):167-227. doi: 10.1016/0163-7827(90)90002-3.


It is clear from the literature reviewed that modifications in membrane lipid composition play a major role in the adaptation of diverse organisms to specific environments and physiological circumstances. Acyl chain and molecular species restructuring in phospholipids are the most ubiquitous adaptations to environmental insult, being implicated in membrane adjustments to temperature, pressure, water activity, pH and salinity. In contrast, other adaptations (e.g. modulation of anionic phospholipids (salinity adaptation), trehalose content (dehydration) and the PC/PE ratio (temperature acclimation] appear to be more context specific. Although the volume of correlative data relating membrane composition to environmental state is impressive, several questions must be explicitly addressed in future research if a mechanistic understanding of the role of lipids in fine tuning membrane function is to be achieved. These include: (1) Adaptation thresholds--How much environmental variation is required before an acclimatory response is initiated, and is the extent of membrane perturbation induced by such minimally effective stimuli similar for different stress vectors? Interspecific comparisons of the Na+/K(+)-ATPase of fish collected at different depths indicate that species must be separated in depth by a distance corresponding to a pressure difference of 20 MPa before pressure adaptation is evident. Assuming a dT/dP value of 0.23 (Table 1), a 20 MPa change in pressure corresponds to ca. a 5 degrees C change in temperature, which agrees well with the minimal temperature change required to elicit changes in the lipid composition of plasma membranes in kidney tissue of thermally-acclimating trout. A pressure of 20 MPa also corresponds approximately to the maximum depth from which deep sea animals survive being brought to the surface. Collectively, these observations suggest that the minimally effective stimuli for both temperature and pressure adaptation are similar. Comparable data are not available for other environmental variables. (2) Signal transduction--What signals are being sensed and how are they transduced into an adaptational response? In some cases, it is clear that the enzymes of lipid metabolism respond directly (either by a variation in catalytic rate or substrate preference) to variations in the physical environment in an apparently adaptive manner (e.g. refer Sections VI.A.1 and VI.B.2). It seems unlikely, however, that such direct effects can explain the totality of the adaptive capacity of organisms, especially given the evidence for the induction of desaturase synthesis in cold adaptation (refer to Section VI.A.2).(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Hot Temperature
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Hydrostatic Pressure
  • Membrane Lipids / physiology*
  • Osmolar Concentration
  • Sodium Chloride
  • Water


  • Membrane Lipids
  • Water
  • Sodium Chloride