Sphingomyelins are important phospholipids in plasma membranes of most cells. Because of their dominantly saturated nature, they affect the lateral structure of membranes, and contribute to the regulation of cholesterol distribution within membranes, and in cells. However, the abundance of molecular species present in cells also implies that sphingomyelins have other, more specific functions. Many of these functions are currently unknown, but are under extensive study. Mostly model membrane studies have shown that sphingomyelins (and other sphingolipids), in contrast to glycerophospholipids, have important hydrogen bonding properties which in several important ways confer specific functional properties to this abundant class of membrane phospholipids. The often very asymmetric nature of sphingomyelins, arising from mismatch in length between the long chain base and N-acyl chains, also impose specific properties (e.g., interdigitation) to sphingomyelins not seen with glycerophospholipids. In this review, the latest sphingomyelin literature will be scrutinized, and an effort will be made to correlate the molecular structure of sphingomyelin with functional properties. In particular, the effects of head group properties, interfacial hydrogen bonding, long chain base hydroxylation, N-acyl chain hydroxylation, and N-acyl chain methyl-branching will be discussed.
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