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Monoacylglycerols (or "monoglycerides") are esters of the trihydric alcohol glycerol in which only one of the hydroxyl groups is esterified with a long-chain fatty acid. They can exist in three stereochemical forms as illustrated. Our web page on triacylglycerols describes the stereospecific numbering system.

Formulae for monoacylglycerols

Using most chromatographic separation systems, the 1/3-isomers are not distinguished from each other and are termed 'α-monoacylglycerols', while the 2-isomers are β-monoacylglycerols. They tend to be minor components only of most plant and animal tissues, and indeed would not be expected to accumulate because their strong detergent properties would have a disruptive effect on membranes.

One particular monoacylglycerol, i.e. 2-arachidonoylglycerol, is of special biological importance as an endocannabinoid and is more appropriately discussed under that heading, but other monoacylglycerols have specific functions in cells.

2-Monoacylglycerols are a major end product of the intestinal digestion of dietary fats in animals by the enzyme pancreatic lipase. They are taken up directly by the intestinal cells and converted to triacylglycerols via the monoacylglycerol pathway before being transported in lymph to the liver (see our web pages on triacylglycerols for further details). In addition, it is now recognized that 2-monoacylglycerols and 2-oleoylglycerol in particular have a signalling function in the intestines by activating a specific G-protein coupled receptor GPR119, sometimes termed the ‘fat sensor’. When stimulated, this causes a reduction in food intake and body weight gain in rats and regulates glucose-stimulated insulin secretion. Oleoylethanolamide and 1-oleoyl-lysophosphatidylcholine act in the same manner, but 2-oleoylglycerol is the most abundant of the potential agonists. Whether these 2-monoacylglycerols have signalling functions in other tissues has yet to be determined.

Monoacylglycerols are also produced in bacteria, fungi, plants and animals from diacylglycerols, but not from triacylglycerols, by the action of diacylglycerol lipases. While the bacterial enzyme can hydrolyse diacylglycerols to glycerol and free fatty acids via monoacylglycerol intermediates, the mammalian enzyme has little monoacylglycerol lipase activity. The enzyme is highly expressed in brain and nervous tissue, where a major product is 2-arachidonoylglycerol. In plants such as Arabidopsis, 2-monoacyl-sn-glycerols are generated for cutin synthesis via an intermediate 2-lysophosphatidic acid produced by specific glycerol-3-phosphate acyltransferases (GPATs).

In animal cells, monoacylglycerols are catabolized by the action of a monoacylglycerol lipase with formation of free fatty acids and glycerol. This enzyme is currently of considerable biological interest as it is highly expressed in aggressive human cancer cells and primary tumours. It appears that the resulting high lipolytic activity controls free fatty acid levels in cancer cells, and these feed into a diverse network of pro-tumorigenic signalling lipids, which promote migration, survival and tumour growth in vivo supporting malignancy.

Monoacylglycerols undergo acyl migration very rapidly indeed to form a mixture that contains more than 80% of the 1/3-form. They can be stabilized and purified by chromatography on adsorbents impregnated with boric acid, provided that great care is taken. By following appropriate derivatization procedures, stereoisomers monoacylglycerols can be resolved by chiral chromatography, but it is more usual to analyse them as a 'total' monoacylglycerol fraction isolated by TLC by gas chromatography of the methyl ester derivatives of the fatty acid components.

From a technological standpoint, synthetic monoacylglycerols are important as constituents of commercial detergents. Monoolein has become one of the most important lipids in the fields of drug delivery, emulsion stabilization and protein crystallization, where its physical properties as an amphiphile in aqueous emulsions are so distinctive that it has been termed a ‘magic lipid’.


Lipid listings Credits/disclaimer Updated: June 8th, 2017 Author: William W. Christie LipidWeb icon