Vitamin A and its natural derivatives

Methods Enzymol. 2020:637:1-25. doi: 10.1016/bs.mie.2020.02.002. Epub 2020 Mar 19.


Vitamin A and derivatives, the natural retinoids, underpin signaling pathways of cellular differentiation, and are key chromophores in vision. These functions depend on transfer across membranes, and carrier proteins to shuttle retinoids to specific cell compartments. Natural retinoids, ultimately derived from plant carotenoids by metabolism to all-trans retinol, are lipophilic and consist of a cyclohexenyl (β-ionone) moiety linked to a polyene chain. This structure constrains the orientation of retinoids within lipid membranes. Cis-trans isomerization at double bonds of the polyene chain and s-cis/s-trans rotational isomerization at single bonds define the functional dichotomy of retinoids (signaling/vision) and specificities of interactions with specific carrier proteins and receptors. Metabolism of all-trans retinol to 11-cis retinal, transfer to photoreceptors, and removal and recycling of all-trans retinal generated by photoreceptor irradiation, is the key process underlying vision. All-trans retinol transferred into cells is metabolized to all-trans retinoic acid and shuttled to the cell nucleus to regulate gene expression controlling organ, tissue and cell differentiation, and cellular homeostasis. Research methods need to address the potential of photoisomerization in vitro to confound research results, and data should be interpreted in the context of membrane-association properties of retinoids and physiological concentrations in vivo. Despite a century of research, there are many fundamental questions of retinoid cellular biochemistry and molecular biology still to be answered. Computational modeling techniques will have an important role for understanding the nuances of vitamin A signaling and function.

Keywords: Binding proteins; Differentiation; Isomerization; Receptors; Retinoic acid; Signaling; Vision.

MeSH terms

  • Carotenoids
  • Retina
  • Retinaldehyde
  • Retinoids*
  • Vitamin A*


  • Retinoids
  • Vitamin A
  • Carotenoids
  • Retinaldehyde