A phospholipid is an amphipathic molecule, meaning it has a hydrophobic and a hydrophilic part. Phospholipids are major plasma membrane constituents that comprise cells’ outermost layer. Like fats, they are comprised of fatty acid chains attached to a glycerol or sphingosine backbone. However, instead of three fatty acids attached as in triglycerides, there are two fatty acids forming diacylglycerol, and a modified phosphate group occupies the glycerol backbone’s third carbon.A phospholipid is a molecule with two fatty acids and a modified phosphate group attached to a glycerol backbone. Adding a charged or polar chemical group may modify the phosphate.
A phosphate group alone attached to a diacylglycerol does not qualify as a phospholipid. It is phosphatidate (diacylglycerol 3-phosphate), the precursor of phospholipids. An alcohol modifies the phosphate group. Phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine are two important phospholipids that are in plasma membranes. The fatty acid chains are hydrophobic and cannot interact with water; whereas, the phosphate-containing group is hydrophilic and interacts with water.The phospholipid bilayer is the major component of all cellular membranes. The hydrophilic head groups of the phospholipids face the aqueous solution. The hydrophobic tails are sequestered in the middle of the bilayer.
The head is the hydrophilic part, and the tail contains the hydrophobic fatty acids. In a membrane, a bilayer of phospholipids forms the structure’s matrix, phospholipids’ fatty acid tails face inside, away from water; whereas, the phosphate group faces the outside, aqueous side.
Phospholipids are responsible for the plasma membrane’s dynamic nature. If a drop of phospholipids is placed in water, it spontaneously forms a structure that scientists call a micelle, where the hydrophilic phosphate heads face the outside and the fatty acids face the structure’s interior.
- Biology 2e. OpenStax. Authors: Mary Ann Clark, Matthew Douglas, Jung Choi. https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction