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Triglycerides

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Triglycerides

Triglycerides are lipids that include fats and oils. You may have heard about triglycerides in relation to medicine, as high levels of triglycerides are a common sign of various health issues. However, there is another side to triglycerides: triglycerides as energy powerhouses! Both their structure and function make them such useful energy storage molecules.

Triglycerides are often referred to simply as fats and are the most common lipids found in living organisms.

The structure of triglycerides

The building blocks of triglycerides are fatty acids and glycerol. The term triglyceride comes from the fact that they have three (tri-) fatty acids attached to glycerol (glyceride).

Glycerol is an alcohol, and an organic compound, with the formula .

Fatty acids are acids belonging to the carboxylic acid group. They consist of a long hydrocarbon chain, with a carboxyl group ⎼COOH at one end and a methyl group at the other. The simple formula of fatty acids is RCOOH, where R is the hydrocarbon chain with the methyl group.

Depending on the bonds between carbon atoms in the chain, fatty acids can be saturated and unsaturated: mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated. Saturated fatty acids have only single bonds. Unsaturated fatty acids have one or more double bonds between carbon atoms: mono-unsaturated have one double bond, while poly-unsaturated have two or more. That is why you will hear fats referred to as saturated and unsaturated fats.

Figure 1

Due to a large number of carbons and hydrogens comprising the structure of triglycerides, they are entirely insoluble in water (hydrophobic).

How are triglycerides formed?

Triglycerides are formed during the condensation reaction of fatty acids and glycerol.

Glycerol has three –OH groups to which three fatty acids attach during condensation. A covalent bond called the ester bond forms between glycerol and fatty acids.

It is important to remember that fatty acids do not attach to one another, only to glycerol!

The formation of triglycerides is a condensation reaction. The carboxyl group of each fatty acid loses one hydrogen atom, and glycerol loses three –OH groups. This results in the release of not one but three water molecules since three fatty acids attach to glycerol, and therefore three ester bonds form.

Like all biological macromolecules, triglycerides go through hydrolysis when they need to be broken down into their building blocks of fatty acids and glycerol. For instance, the breakdown of fats stored in fat cells during hunger. During hydrolysis, ester bonds between fatty acids and glycerol break using three water molecules. This results in the breaking down of triglycerides and the release of energy.

Figure 2

Remember that the other three biological macromolecules - carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids - are polymers composed of small molecules called monomers. Polymers are built of monomers during condensation and broken down during hydrolysis.

Triglycerides are lipids and, therefore, not polymers, and fatty acids and glycerol are not monomers. This is because fatty acids and glycerol do not form repetitive chains like other monomers. However, triglycerides (and all lipids) go through condensation and hydrolysis to be created or broken down!

The function of triglycerides

The primary function of triglycerides is energy storage. They are obtained via the food we eat or are released from the liver. They are then transported via blood plasma, providing nutrients to different body parts.

  • Triglycerides are excellent energy storage molecules because they are composed of long hydrocarbon chains (chains in fatty acids) with many bonds between carbon and hydrogen atoms. These bonds hold a large amount of energy. This energy is released when fatty acids are broken down (a process called fatty acid oxidation).
  • Triglycerides have a low mass to energy ratio, which means a significant amount of energy can be stored in a small volume. Triglycerides are energy powerhouses - they hold more energy per gram than carbohydrates and proteins!
  • Triglycerides are large and insoluble in water (hydrophobic). This means that triglycerides can be stored in cells without affecting their osmosis. This, too, makes them excellent energy storage molecules.
  • Triglycerides are stored as oils in plants, specifically in seeds and fruits. In animals, triglycerides are stored as fats in the liver and adipose tissue (the connective tissue that serves as the primary lipid storage in mammals).

Other functions of triglycerides include:

  • Insulation - Triglycerides stored beneath the body surface insulate mammals from the environment, keeping their bodies warm. In aquatic animals, a thick layer of fat underneath their skin keeps them warm and dry.
  • Protection - Triglycerides are stored in adipose tissue, which serves as a protective shield around vital organs.
  • Providing buoyancy - Aquatic mammals (e.g., seals) have a thick layer of fat underneath their skin to prevent them from sinking whenever they are underwater.

Triglycerides can prove to have a negative effect on our health. If you remember, plants store excess glucose in the form of starch, and animals store it as glycogen. The same thing happens with triglycerides. We don’t need triglycerides short-term, so we store them as body fat. However, human bodies often store an excessive amount of triglycerides, mainly around the organs.

Therefore, hypertriglyceridemia (high triglyceride levels) may occur. It is a serious indication that our bodies are not functioning well and may lead to conditions such as heart disease and stroke. It can be an indication of diabetes as well. Read more on this disease in the article Diabetes.

A piece of general advice is to limit the intake of so-called “bad fats”, i.e. the food high in saturated fats, such as starchy food, baked goods, fast food and other high-calorie food, and even alcohol. This advice extends to include the intake of healthier fats, including fish, white chicken meat, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and vegetable oils like olive and rapeseed oil.

Triglycerides - Key takeaways

  • Triglycerides are lipids that include fats and oils, the most common types of lipids found in living organisms.
  • The building blocks of triglycerides are fatty acids and glycerol.
  • Triglycerides are formed during the condensation of fatty acids and glycerol. A covalent bond called the ester bond forms between glycerol and fatty acids. Three molecules of water are released as three ester bonds are formed.
  • During the hydrolysis of triglycerides, ester bonds between fatty acids and glycerol break using three water molecules. This results in the breaking down of triglycerides and the release of energy.
  • The primary function of triglycerides is to serve as energy storage.

Frequently Asked Questions about Triglycerides

Triglycerides are made of three fatty acids and one molecule of glycerol. Fatty acids are linked by ester bonds to glycerol.

Triglycerides are broken down during hydrolysis into fatty acids and glycerol.

No, triglycerides are not polymers. This is because fatty acids and glycerol do not form repetitive chains. Therefore, triglycerides (and all lipids) are composed of chains of non-similar units, unlike all other polymers.

Foods that are high in triglycerides are starchy foods, baked goods, fast food and other high-calorie food, and even alcohol.

Triglycerides are lipids that include fats and oils. They are the most common lipids found in living organisms.

Final Triglycerides Quiz

Question

What is the definition of triglycerides?

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Answer

Triglycerides are lipids that include fats and oils, the most common lipids found in living organisms. 

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Question

What is the structure of triglycerides?

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Answer

Triglycerides are built of fatty acids and glycerol, more specifically three fatty acids and one glycerol. 

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Question

What is glycerol?

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Answer

Glycerol is an alcohol, an organic compound. 

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Question

What are fatty acids?

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Answer

Fatty acids are acids belonging to the carboxylic acid group. They consist of a long hydrocarbon chain, with a carboxyl group ⎼COOH at one end, and a methyl group  at the other. 

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What is the simple formula of fatty acids, and what does the letter R stand for?

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Answer

The simple formula of fatty acids is RCOOH, where R is the hydrocarbon chain with the methyl group.

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Question

Triglycerides are hydrophilic. True or False. 

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Answer

False. Triglycerides are hydrophobic, meaning they are insoluble in water. 

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Question

How are triglycerides formed?

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Answer

Triglycerides form during the condensation of fatty acids and glycerol. Three fatty acids attach to three -OH groups in glycerol. Covalent bonds called ester bonds form between glycerol and fatty acids.

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Do fatty acids attach to each other during condensation?

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Answer

No, fatty acids do not attach to one another; they only attach to glycerol.

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How many water molecules are released during the condensation of fatty acids and glycerol, and why?

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Answer

Three water molecules, because three fatty acids attach to glycerol, three ester bonds form.

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Question

What happens during hydrolysis of triglycerides?

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Answer

During hydrolysis of triglycerides, ester bonds between fatty acids and glycerol break using three water molecules. This results in the breaking down of triglycerides and the release of energy. 

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Why are triglycerides (and all lipids) not polymers?

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Answer

Triglycerides are not polymers, and fatty acids and glycerol are not monomers because fatty acids and glycerol do not form repetitive chains like other monomers (e.g. monosaccharides, amino acids).

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Question

What is the main function of triglycerides?

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Answer

The main function of triglycerides is energy storage. 

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Question

Why are triglycerides excellent energy storage molecules?

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Answer

  1. Long hydrocarbon chains in triglycerides have many bonds between carbon and hydrogen atoms. These bonds hold a large amount of energy. This energy is released when fatty acids are broken down.
  2. Triglycerides have a low mass to energy ratio, which means a significant amount of energy can be stored in a small volume. Triglycerides are energy powerhouses - they hold more energy per gram than carbohydrates and protein! 
  3. Triglycerides are large and insoluble in water (hydrophobic), which means they can be stored in cells without affecting their osmosis. This, too, makes them excellent energy storage molecules.

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Question

Where are triglycerides stored in plants and animals?

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Answer

Triglycerides are stored in seeds and fruits as oils. In animals, triglycerides are stored in the liver and adipose tissue as fats.

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Question

What are some other functions of triglycerides besides energy storage?


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Answer

Other functions of triglycerides include:

  • Insulation - Triglycerides stored beneath the body surface insulate mammals from the environment.
  • Protection - Triglycerides are stored in adipose tissue, which serves as a protective shield around vital organs.
  • Providing buoyancy - Aquatic mammals (e.g., seals) have a thick layer of fat underneath their skin to prevent them from sinking whenever they are underwater.

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