Metabolism and longevity: is there a role for membrane fatty acids?

Integr Comp Biol. 2010 Nov;50(5):808-17. doi: 10.1093/icb/icq007. Epub 2010 Mar 15.


More than 100 years ago, Max Rubner combined the fact that both metabolic rate and longevity of mammals varies with body size to calculate that "life energy potential" (lifetime energy turnover per kilogram) was relatively constant. This calculation linked longevity to aerobic metabolism which in turn led to the "rate-of-living" and ultimately the "oxidative stress" theories of aging. However, the link between metabolic rate and longevity is imperfect. Although unknown in Rubner's time, one aspect of body composition of mammals also varies with body size, namely the fatty acid composition of membranes. Fatty acids vary dramatically in their susceptibility to peroxidation and the products of lipid peroxidation are very powerful reactive molecules that damage other cellular molecules. The "membrane pacemaker" modification of the "oxidative stress" theory of aging proposes that fatty acid composition of membranes, via its influence on peroxidation of lipids, is an important determinant of lifespan (and a link between metabolism and longevity). The relationship between membrane fatty acid composition and longevity is discussed for (1) mammals of different body size, (2) birds of different body size, (3) mammals and birds that are exceptionally long-living for their size, (4) strains of mice that vary in longevity, (5) calorie-restriction extension of longevity in rodents, (6) differences in longevity between queen and worker honeybees, and (7) variation in longevity among humans. Most of these comparisons support an important role for membrane fatty acid composition in the determination of longevity. It is apparent that membrane composition is regulated for each species. Provided the diet is not deficient in polyunsaturated fat, it has minimal influence on a species' membrane fatty acid composition and likely also on it's maximum longevity. The exceptional longevity of Homo sapiens combined with the limited knowledge of the fatty acid composition of human tissues support the potential importance of mitochondrial membranes in determination of longevity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism / physiology
  • Caloric Restriction
  • Cell Membrane / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Fatty Acids / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Longevity / physiology*
  • Oxidative Stress / physiology


  • Fatty Acids