The role of 18-methyleicosanoic acid in the structure and formation of mammalian hair fibres

Micron. 1997 Dec;28(6):469-85. doi: 10.1016/s0968-4328(97)00039-5.


Although branched chain fatty acids perform many functions in biological systems, the importance of the anteiso 18 methyleicosanoic acid (MEA) has only recently been recognized. In this first review on MEA its role and distribution is explored. MEA has been found in minor amounts in the fatty acid components of a wide range of biological materials, but the current interest results from it being the major covalently bound fatty acid in mammalian hair fibres, a finding which is unusual because protein-bound fatty acids are typically straight-chain, even-numbered acids (C14-C18). MEA is released by surface restricted reagents indicating that it is located exclusively in or on the surface of the cuticle cells, a conclusion that has been verified by analysis of isolated cuticle cells, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and secondary-ion mass spectroscopy (SIMS) studies support these results in that they show the surface of the cuticle to be predominantly hydrocarbon. When either neutral hydroxylamine or acidic chlorine solutions are applied to hair and wool fibres fatty acids are liberated, indicating the presence of thioester bonds. Calculations, based on fatty acid and amino acid analysis, indicate that approximately one residue in 10 of the cuticular membrane protein is a fatty acid thioester of cysteine. Removal of this covalently linked fatty acid renders the fibre hydrophilic, thus offering a chemical explanation for many technological and cosmetic treatments of mammalian fibres. Examination of the fibre surface and that of isolated cuticle cells by transmission electron microscopy (TEM) confirms the presence of a thin non-staining continuous layer surrounding the cuticle cells. Alkaline treatments which remove the bound fatty acids were found to disrupt this layer. TEM examination of developing hair fibres has indicated that the fatty acid layer on the upper surface and scale edges of the cuticle cell differs from that of the underside of the cell. Similar structural studies of hair from patients with maple syrup urine disease (MSUD) support the findings that thioester-bound MEA is limited to the upper surface of fibre cuticle cells. The current model proposed for the boundary layer consists of crosslinked protein with surface thioester-linked fatty acids, forming a continuous hydrophobic layer on the upper surface and scale edges of the cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Eicosanoic Acids / chemistry
  • Eicosanoic Acids / metabolism*
  • Electron Probe Microanalysis
  • Fatty Acids / metabolism
  • Hair / growth & development*
  • Hair / metabolism
  • Hair / ultrastructure*
  • Hair Follicle / growth & development
  • Hair Follicle / metabolism
  • Hair Follicle / ultrastructure
  • Humans
  • Keratins / analysis
  • Keratins / ultrastructure
  • Lipids / analysis
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Sheep


  • Eicosanoic Acids
  • Fatty Acids
  • Lipids
  • Keratins
  • 18-methyleicosanoic acid