Unlike the phospholipids and fats that we discussed earlier, steroids have a fused ring structure. Although they do not resemble the other lipids, scientists group them with them because they are also hydrophobic and insoluble in water. All steroids have four linked carbon rings and several of them, like cholesterol, have a short tail (Figure). Many steroids also have the –OH functional group, which puts them in the alcohol classification (sterols).

 The structures of cholesterol and cortisol are shown. Each of these molecules is composed of three six-carbon rings fused to a five-carbon ring. Cholesterol has a branched hydrocarbon attached to the five-carbon ring, and a hydroxyl group attached to the terminal six-carbon ring. Cortisol has a two-carbon chain modified with a double-bonded oxygen, a hydroxyl group attached to the five-carbon ring, and an oxygen double-bonded to the terminal six-carbon ring.
Four fused hydrocarbon rings comprise steroids such as cholesterol and cortisol.

Cholesterol is the most common steroid. The liver synthesizes cholesterol and is the precursor to many steroid hormones such as testosterone and estradiol, which gonads and endocrine glands secrete. It is also the precursor to Vitamin D. Cholesterol is also the precursor of bile salts, which help emulsifying fats and their subsequent absorption by cells. Although lay people often speak negatively about cholesterol, it is necessary for the body's proper functioning. Sterols (cholesterol in animal cells, phytosterol in plants) are components of the plasma membrane of cells and are found within the phospholipid bilayer.

Link to Learning

For an additional perspective on lipids, explore the interactive animation “Biomolecules: The Lipids”.

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