Category Archives: Biochemistry

Biochemistry or biological chemistry deals with the study of chemical processes that occur in animals, plants and microorganisms.
Biochemistry is, with inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry and analytical chemistry one of the five main branches of chemistry. And, as the name suggests, it can also be considered a branch of biology.
It emerged as a discipline in its own right in the early 1900s when scientists combined biology, physiology and chemistry to study living beings, exploiting the knowledge accumulated in the previous century thanks to the work of scientists such as Justus von Liebig, Eduard Buchner, Louis Pasteur or Emil Fischer.
Since the mid-1900s, biochemists, also exploiting the advancement of knowledge in chemistry, physics and mathematics, have been able to analyze and clarify cellular metabolic pathways. Pathways that allow to obtain energy  from food or from the sun, such as glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, lipolysis, oxidative phosphorylation, or photosynthesis. And how cells use the energy to produce what they need to live and reproduce. Therefore, light has been shed on what cellular metabolism is, namely, the anabolic and catabolic pathways that allow the synthesis and catabolism of molecules and macromolecules such as carbohydrates, proteins, lipids and nucleic acids have been clarified. The structure of these macromolecules has also been clarified, for example of DNA thanks to the work of Rosalind Elsie Franklin, James Dewey Watson and Francis Harry Compton Crick. And with metabolism and enzymology, structural biology is one of the three branches into which biochemistry can be divided.

Bile salts: structure, function, synthesis, and enterohepatic circulation

Bile salts and bile acids are polar cholesterol derivatives, and represent the major route for the elimination of the steroid from the body.
They are molecules with similar but not identical structures, and diverse physical and biological characteristics.
They are synthesized in the liver, stored in the gallbladder, secreted into the duodenum, and finally, for the most part, reabsorbed in the ileum.
Because at physiological pH these molecules are present as anions, the terms bile acid and bile salts are used herein as synonyms.

CONTENTS

Chemical structure of bile salts

Bile salts have similarities and differences with cholesterol molecule.
Like the steroid, they have a nucleus composed of four fused rings: three cyclohexane rings, labeled A, B and C, and a cyclopentane ring, labeled D. This structure is the perhydrocyclopentanophenanthrene, more commonly known as steroid nucleus.

Structures and names of the most abundant bile acids and their conjugates
Bile Acids and Their Conjugates

In higher vertebrates, they have 24 carbon atoms, as the side chain is three carbons shorter than the original. In lower vertebrates, bile acids have 25, 26, or 27 carbon atoms. The side chain ends with a carboxyl group, ionized at pH 7, that can be linked to the amino acid glycine or taurine (see below).
In addition to the hydroxyl group at position 3, they have hydroxyl groups at positions 7 and/or 12.
All this makes them much more polar than cholesterol.
Since A and B rings are fused in cis configuration, the planar structure of the steroid nucleus is curved, and it is possible to identify:

  • a concave side, which is hydrophilic because the hydroxyl groups and the carboxyl group of the side chain, with or without the linked amino acid, are oriented towards it;
  • a convex side, which is hydrophobic because the methyl groups present at position 18 and 19 are orientated towards it.
Cholic Acid Structure
Cholic Acid Structure

Therefore, having both polar and nonpolar groups, they are amphiphilic molecules and excellent surfactants. However, their chemical structure makes them different from many other surfactants, often composed of a polar head region and a nonpolar tail.

Primary, conjugated and secondary bile salts

Primary bile acids are those synthesized directly from cholesterol in the hepatocytes. In humans, the most important are cholic acid and chenodeoxycholic acid, which make up 80% of all bile acids. Before being secreted into the biliary tree, they are almost completely conjugated, up to 98%, with the glycine or taurine, to form glycoconjugates and tauroconjugates, respectively. In particular, approximately 75% of cholic acid and chenodeoxycholic acid are conjugated with glycine, to form glycocholic acid  and glycochenodeoxycholic acid, the remaining 25% with taurine, to form taurocholic acid and taurochenodeoxycholic.

Synthesis of taurine- and glycine-conjugated bile acids
Synthesis of Conjugated Bile Acids

Conjugated bile acids are molecules with more hydrophilic groups than unconjugated bile acids, therefore with a increased emulsifying capacity. In fact, conjugation decreases the pKa of bile acids, from about 6, a value typical of non-conjugated molecules, to about 4 for glycocholic acid, and about 2 for taurocholic acid. This makes that conjugated bile acids are ionized in a broader range of pH to form the corresponding salts.
The hydrophilicity of the common acid and bile salts decreases in the following order: glycine-conjugated < taurine-conjugated < lithocholic acid  < deoxycholic acid  < chenodeoxycholic acid < cholic acid <ursodeoxycholic acid.
Finally, conjugation also decreases the cytotoxicity of primary bile acids.

Secondary bile acids  are formed from primary bile acids which have not been reabsorbed from the small intestine. Once they reach the colon, they can undergo several modifications by gut  microbiota to form secondary bile acids (see below). They make up the remaining 20% of the body’s bile acid pool.

Another way of categorizing bile salts is based on their conjugation with glycine and taurine and their degree of hydroxylation. On this basis, three categories are identified.

  • Trihydroxy conjugates, such as taurocholic acid and glycocholic acid.
  • Dihydroxy conjugates, such as glycodeoxycholic acid, glycochenodeoxycholic acid, taurochenodeoxycholic acid, and taurodeoxycholic acid. They account for about 60% of bile salts present in the bile.
  • Unconjugated forms, such as cholic acid, deoxycholic acid, chenodeoxycholic acid, and lithocholic acid.

Function of bile acids

All their physiological functions are performed in the conjugated form.

  • They are the major route for the elimination of cholesterol from human body.
    Indeed, humans do not have the enzymes to break open the cyclohexane rings or  the cyclopentane ring of the steroid nucleus, nor to oxidize cholesterol to CO2 and water.
    The other mechanism to eliminate the steroid from the body is as cholesterol per se in the bile.
  • Bile salts are strong surfactants. And in particular, di- and trihydroxy conjugates are the best surfactants among bile acids, much more effective than unconjugated counterparts, since they have more polar groups.
    Once in contact with apolar lipids in the lumen of the small intestine, the convex apolar surface interacts with the apolar lipids, such as triglycerides, cholesterol esters, and ester of fat-soluble vitamins, whereas the concave polar surface interacts with the surrounding aqueous medium. This increases the dispersion of apolar lipids in the aqueous medium, as it allows the formation of tiny lipid droplets, increasing the surface area for:

lipase activity, mainly pancreatic lipase, (bile salts also play a direct role in the activation of this enzyme);

intestinal esterase activity.

Subsequently, they facilitate the absorption of lipid digestion products, as well as of fat soluble vitamins by the intestinal mucosa thanks to the formation of mixed micelles.
Bile acids perform a similar function in the gallbladder where, forming mixed micelles with phospholipids, they prevent the precipitation of cholesterol.
Note: As a consequence of the arrangement of polar and nonpolar groups, bile acids form micelles in aqueous solution, usually made up of less than 10 monomers, as long as their concentration is above the so-called critical micellar concentration or CMC.

  • At the intestinal level, they modulate the secretion of pancreatic enzymes and cholecystokinin.
  • In the small and large intestine, they have a potent antimicrobial activity, mainly deoxycholic acid, in particular against Gram-positive bacteria. This activity may be due to oxidative DNA damage, and/or to the damage of the cell membrane. Therefore, they play an important role in the prevention of bacterial overgrowth, but also in the regulation of gut microbiota composition.
  • In the last few years, it becomes apparent their regulatory role in the control of energy metabolism, and in particular for the hepatic glucose handling.

Enterohepatic circulation of bile salts

After fat intake, enteroendocrine cells of the duodenum secrete cholecystokinin into the blood stream. Hormone binding to receptors on smooth muscle cells of the gallbladder promotes their contraction; the hormone also causes the relaxation of the sphincter of Oddi. All this results in the secretion of the bile, and therefore of bile acids into the duodenum.
Under physiological conditions, human bile salt pool is constant, and equal to about 3-5 g. This is made possible by two processes:

  • their intestinal reabsorption;
  • their de novo synthesis (see below).

Up to 95% of the secreted bile salts is reabsorbed from the gut, not together with the products of lipid digestion, but through a process called enterohepatic circulation.
It is an extremely efficient recycling system, which seems to occur at least two times for each meal, and includes the liver, the biliary tree, the small intestine, the colon, and the portal circulation through which reabsorbed molecules return to the liver. Such recirculation is necessary since liver’s capacity to synthesize bile acids is limited and insufficient to satisfy intestinal needs if the bile salts were excreted in the feces in high amounts.
Most of the bile salts are reabsorbed into the distal ileum, the lower part of the small intestine, by a sodium-dependent transporter within the brush border of the enterocytes, called sodium-dependent bile acid transporter or ASBT, which carries out the cotransport of a molecule of bile acid and two sodium ions.
Within the enterocyte, it is thought that bile acids are transported across the cytosol to the basolateral membrane by the ileal bile acid-binding protein or IBABP. They cross the basolateral membrane by the organic solute transporter alpha-beta or OSTα/OSTβ, pass into the portal circulation, and, bound to albumin, reach the liver.
It should be noted that a small percentage of bile acids reach the liver through the hepatic artery.
A hepatic level, their extraction is very efficient, with a first-pass extraction fraction ranging from 50 to 90%, a percentage that depends on bile acid structure. The uptake of conjugated bile acids is mainly mediated by a Na+-dependent active transport system, that is, the sodium-dependent taurocholate cotransporting polypeptide or NTCP. However, a sodium-independent uptake can also occur, carried out by proteins of the family of organic anion transporting polypeptides or OATP, mainly OATP1B1 and OATP1B3.
The rate limiting step in the enterohepatic circulation is their canalicular secretion, largely mediated by the bile salt export pump or BSEP, in an ATP-dependent process. This pump carries monoanionic bile salts, which are the most abundant. Bile acids conjugated with glucuronic acid or sulfate, which are dianionic, are transported by different carriers, such as MRP2 and BCRP.

Note: Serum levels of bile acids vary on the basis of the rate of their reabsorption, and therefore they are higher during meals, when the enterohepatic circulation is more active.

Intestinal metabolism of bile acids

Bile acids which escape ileal absorption pass into the colon where they partly undergo modifications by intestinal microbiota and are converted to secondary bile acids.
The main reactions are listed below.

  • Deconjugation
    On the side chain, hydrolysis of the C24 N-acyl amide bond can occur, with release of unconjugated bile acids and glycine or taurine. This reaction is catalyzed by bacterial hydrolases present both in the small intestine and in the colon.
  • 7α-Dehydroxylation
    Quantitatively, it is the most important reaction, carried out by colonic bacterial dehydratases that remove the hydroxyl group at position 7 to form 7-deoxy bile acids. In particular, deoxycholic acid is formed from cholic acid, and lithocholic acid, a toxic secondary bile acid, from chenodeoxycholic acid.
    It should be noted that 7α-dehydroxylation, unlike oxidation and epimerization (see below), can only occur on unconjugated bile acids, and therefore, deconjugation is an essential prerequisite.
  • Oxidation and epimerization
    They are reactions involving the hydroxyl groups at positions 3, 7 and 12, catalyzed by bacterial hydroxysteroid dehydrogenases. For example, ursodeoxycholic acid derives from the epimerization of chenodeoxycholic acid.
Conversion of bile acids to secondary bile acids by intestinal microbiota
Intestinal Metabolism of Bile Acids

Some of the secondary bile acids are then reabsorbed from the colon and return to the liver. In the hepatocytes, they are reconjugated, if necessary, and resecreted. Those that are not reabsorbed, are excreted in the feces.
Whereas oxidations and deconjugations are carried out by a broad spectrum of anaerobic bacteria, 7α-dehydroxylations is carried out by a limited number of colonic anaerobes.
7α-Dehydroxylations and deconjugations increase the pKa of the bile acids, and therefore their hydrophobicity, allowing a certain degree of passive absorption across the colonic wall.
The increase of hydrophobicity is also associated with an increased toxicity of these molecules. And a high concentration of secondary bile acids in the bile, blood, and feces has been associated to the pathogenesis of colon cancer.

Soluble fibers and reabsorption of bile salts

The reabsorption of bile salts can be reduced by chelating action of soluble fibers, such as those found in fresh fruits, legumes, oats and oat bran, which bind them, decreasing their uptake. In turn, this increases bile acid de novo synthesis, up-regulating the expression of the 7α-hydroxylase and sterol 12α-hydroxylase (see below), and thereby reduces hepatocyte cholesterol concentration.
The depletion of hepatic cholesterol increases the expression of the LDL receptor, and thus reduces plasma concentration of LDL cholesterol. On the other hand, it also stimulates the synthesis of HMG-CoA reductase, the key enzyme in cholesterol biosynthesis.
Note: Some anti-cholesterol drugs act by binding bile acids in the intestine, thereby preventing their reabsorption.

Synthesis of primary bile acids

Quantitatively, bile acids are the major product of cholesterol metabolism.
As previously said, enterohepatic circulation and their de novo synthesis maintain a constant bile acid pool size. In particular, de novo synthesis allows the replacement of bile salts excreted in the faces, about 5-10% of the body pool, namely ~ 0.5 g/day.
Below, the synthesis of cholic acid and chenodeoxycholic acid, and their conjugation with the amino acids taurine and glycine, is described.
There are two main pathways for bile acid synthesis: the classical pathway and the alternative pathway. In addition, some other minor pathways will also be described.

De novo synthesis of primary bile acids and their conjugates: classical and alternative pathways
De Novo Synthesis of Primary Bile Acids and Their Conjugates

The classical or neutral pathway

In humans, up to 90% of bile salts are produced via the classical pathway (see fig. 5), also referred to as “neutral” pathway since intermediates are neutral molecules.
It is a metabolic pathway present only in the liver, that consists of reactions catalyzed by enzymes localized in the cytosol, endoplasmic reticulum, peroxisomes, and mitochondria, and whose end products are the conjugates of cholic acid and chenodeoxycholic acid.

  • The first reaction is the hydroxylation at position 7 of cholesterol, to form 7α-hydroxycholesterol. The reaction is catalyzed by cholesterol 7α-hydroxylase or CYP7A1 (E.C. 1.14.14.23). It is an enzyme localized in the endoplasmic reticulum, and catalyzes the rate-limiting step of the pathway.

Cholesterol + NADPH + H+ + O2 → 7α-Hydroxycholesterol + NADP+ + H2O

  • 7α-Hydroxycholesterol undergoes oxidation of the 3β-hydroxyl group and the shift of the double bond from the 5,6 position to the 4,5 position, to form 7α-hydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one. The reaction is catalyzed by 3β-hydroxy-Δ5-C27-steroid oxidoreductase or HSD3B7 (E.C. 1.1.1.181), an enzyme localized in the endoplasmic reticulum.
  • 7α-Hydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one can follow two routes:

to enter the pathway that leads to the synthesis of cholic acid, through the reaction catalyzed by 7α-hydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one 12α-monooxygenase or sterol 12α-hydroxylase or CYP8B1 (E.C. 1.14.18.8), an enzyme localized in the endoplasmic reticulum;

to enter the pathway that leads the synthesis of chenodeoxycholic acid, through the reaction catalyzed by 3-oxo-Δ4-steroid 5β-reductase or AKR1D1 (E.C. 1.3.1.3), a cytosolic enzyme.

It should be underlined that the activity of sterol 12α-hydroxylase determines the ratio of cholic acid to chenodeoxycholic acid, and, ultimately, the detergent capacity of bile acid pool. And in fact, the regulation of sterol 12α-hydroxylase gene transcription is one of the main regulatory step of the classical pathway.

Therefore, if 7α-hydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one proceeds via the reaction catalyzed by sterol 12α-hydroxylase, the following reactions will occur.

  • 7α-Hydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one is hydroxylated at position 12 by sterol 12α-hydroxylase, to form 7α,12α-dihydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one.
  • 7α,12α-Dihydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one undergoes reduction of the double bond at 4,5 position, in the reaction catalyzed by 3-oxo-Δ4-steroid 5β-reductase, to form 5β-cholestan-7α,12α-diol-3-one.
  • 5β-Cholestan-7α,12α-diol-3-one undergoes reduction of the hydroxyl group at position 4, in the reaction catalyzed by 3α-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase or AKR1C4 (EC 1.1.1.213), a cytosolic enzyme, to form 5β-cholestan-3α,7α,12α-triol.
  • 5β-Cholestan-3α,7α,12α-triol undergoes oxidation of the side chain via three reactions catalyzed by sterol 27-hydroxylase or CYP27A1 (EC 1.14.15.15). It is a mitochondrial enzyme also present in extrahepatic tissues and macrophages, which introduces a hydroxyl group at position 27. The hydroxyl group is oxidized to aldehyde, and then to carboxylic acid, to form 3α,7α,12α-trihydroxy-5β-cholestanoic acid.
  • 3α,7α,12α-Trihydroxy-5β-cholestanoic  acid is activated to its coenzyme A ester, 3α,7α,12α-trihydroxy-5β-cholestanoyl-CoA, in the reaction catalyzed by either very long chain acyl-CoA synthetase or VLCS (EC 6.2.1.-), or bile acid CoA synthetase or BACS (EC 6.2.1.7), both localized in the endoplasmic reticulum.
  • 3α,7α,12α-Trihydroxy-5β-cholestanoyl-CoA is transported to peroxisomes where it undergoes five successive reactions, each catalyzed by a different enzyme. In the last two reactions, the side chain is shortened to four carbon atoms, and finally cholylCoA is formed.
  • In the last step, the conjugation, via amide bond, of the carboxylic acid group of the side chain with the amino acid glycine or taurine occurs. The reaction is catalyzed by bile acid-CoA:amino acid N-acyltransferase or the BAAT (EC 2.3.1.65), which is predominantly localized in peroxisomes.
    The reaction products are thus the conjugated bile acids: glycocholic acid and taurocholic acid.

If 7α-hydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one does not proceed via the reaction catalyzed by sterol 12α-hydroxylase, it enters the pathway that leads to the synthesis of chenodeoxycholic acid conjugates, through the reactions described below.

  • 7α-Hydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one is converted to 7α-hydroxy-5β-cholestan-3-one in the reaction catalyzed by 3-oxo-Δ4-steroid 5β-reductase.
  • 7α-Hydroxy-5β-cholestan-3-one is converted to 5β-cholestan-3α,7α-diol in the reaction catalyzed by 3α-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase.

Then, the conjugated bile acids glycochenodeoxycholic acid and taurochenodeoxycholic acid are formed by modifications similar to those seen for the conjugation of cholic acid, and catalyzed mostly by the same enzymes.

Note: Unconjugated bile acids formed in the intestine must reach the liver to be reconjugated.

The alternative or acidic pathway

It is prevalent in the fetus and neonate, whereas in adults it leads to the synthesis of less than 10% of the bile salts.
This pathway  (see fig. 5) differs from the classical pathway in that:

  • the intermediate products are acidic molecules, from which the alternative name “acidic pathway”;
  • the oxidation of the side chain is followed by modifications of the steroid nucleus, and not vice versa;
  • the final products are conjugates of chenodeoxycholic acid.

The first step involves the conversion of cholesterol into 27-hydroxycholesterol in the reaction catalyzed by sterol 27-hydroxylase.
27-Hydroxycholesterol can follow two routes.

Route A

  • 27-hydroxycholesterol is converted to 3β-hydroxy-5-cholestenoic acid in a reaction catalyzed by sterol 27-hydroxylase.
  • 3β-Hydroxy-5-cholestenoic acid is hydroxylated at position 7 in the reaction catalyzed by oxysterol 7α-hydroxylase or CYP7B1 (EC 1.14.13.100), an enzyme localized in the endoplasmic reticulum, to form 3β-7α-dihydroxy-5-colestenoic acid.
  • 3β-7α-Dihydroxy-5-cholestenoic acid is converted to 3-oxo-7α-hydroxy-4-cholestenoic acid, in the reaction catalyzed by 3β-hydroxy-Δ5-C27-steroid oxidoreductase.
  • 3-Oxo-7α-hydroxy-4-cholestenoic acid, as a result of side chain modifications, forms chenodeoxycholic acid, and then its conjugates.

Route B

  • 27-Hydroxycholesterol is converted to 7α,27-dihydroxycholesterol in the reaction catalyzed by oxysterol 7α-hydroxylase and cholesterol 7α-hydroxylase.
  • 7α,27-Dihydroxycholesterol is converted to 7α,26-dihydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one in the reaction catalyzed by 3β-hydroxy-Δ5-C27-steroid oxidoreductase;

7α, 26-Dihydroxy-4-cholesten-3-one can be transformed directly to conjugates of chenodeoxycholic acid, or can be converted to 3-oxo-7α-hydroxy-4-colestenoic acid,  and then undergo side chain modifications and other reactions that lead to the synthesis of the conjugates of chenodeoxycholic acid.

Minor pathways

There are also minor pathways (see fig. 5) that contribute to bile salt synthesis, although to a lesser extent than classical and alternative pathways.

For example:

  • A cholesterol 25-hydroxylase (EC 1.14.99.38) is expressed in the liver.
  • A cholesterol 24-hydroxylase or CYP46A1 (EC 1.14.14.25) is expressed in the brain, and therefore, although the organ cannot export cholesterol, it exports oxysterols.
  • A nonspecific 7α-hydroxylase has also been discovered. It is  expressed in all tissues and appears to be involved in the generation of oxysterols, which may be transported to hepatocytes to be converted to chenodeoxycholic acid.

Additionally, sterol 27-hydroxylase is expressed in various tissues, and therefore its reaction products must be transported to the liver to be converted to bile salts.

Bile salts: regulation of synthesis

Regulation of bile acid synthesis occurs via a negative feedback mechanism, particularly on the expression of cholesterol 7α-hydroxylase and sterol 12α-hydroxylase.
When an excess of bile acids, both free and conjugated, occurs, these molecules bind to the nuclear receptor farnesoid X receptor or FRX, activating it: the most efficacious bile acid is chenodeoxycholic acid, while others, such as ursodeoxycholic acid, do not activate it.
FRX induces the expression of the transcriptional repressor small heterodimer partner or SHP, which in turn interacts with other transcription factors, such as liver receptor homolog-1 or LRH-1, and hepatocyte nuclear factor-4α or HNF-4α. These transcription factors bind to a sequence in the promoter region of 7α-hydroxylase and 12α-hydroxylase genes, region called bile acid response elements or BAREs, inhibiting their transcription.
One of the reasons why bile salt synthesis is tightly regulated is because many of their metabolites are toxic.

References

Chiang J.Y.L. Bile acids: regulation of synthesis. J Lipid Res 2009;50(10):1955-1966. doi:10.1194/jlr.R900010-JLR200

Gropper S.S., Smith J.L. Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. 6th Edition. Cengage Learning, 2012

Moghimipour E., Ameri A., and Handali S. Absorption-enhancing effects of bile salts. Molecules 2015;20(8); 14451-14473. doi:10.3390/molecules200814451

Monte M.J., Marin J.J.G., Antelo A., Vazquez-Tato J. Bile acids: Chemistry, physiology, and pathophysiology. World J Gastroenterol 2009;15(7):804-816. doi:10.3748/wjg.15.804

Rosenthal M.D., Glew R.H. Medical biochemistry – Human metabolism in health and disease. John Wiley J. & Sons, Inc., Publication, 2009

Sundaram S.S., Bove K.E., Lovell M.A. and Sokol R.J. Mechanisms of Disease: inborn errors of bile acid synthesis. Nat Clin Pract Gastroenterol Hepatol 2008;5(8):456-468. doi:10.1038/ncpgasthep1179

Digestion of starch and alpha-amylase

Amylose and amylopectin, the two families of homopolysaccharides constituting starch, during their biosynthesis within vegetable cells, are deposited in highly organized particles called granules.

alpha-amylase
alpha-Amylase

Granules have a partially crystalline structure and diameter ranging from 3 to 300 µm.
The access of the alpha-amylase (EC 3.2.1.1), the enzyme that catalyzes the breakdown of amylose and amylopectin into maltose, maltotriose, and alpha-dextrins or alpha-limit dextrins, to carbohydrates making up granules varies as a function of:

  • amylose-amylopectin ratio;
  • temperature and packaging of amylose and amylopectin;
  • granules-associated proteins;
  • presence of fibers.

Amylose-amylopectin ratio

Starch for foodstuff use is obtained from various sources, the most important of which are corn (normal, waxy or high amylose content), potatoes, rice, tapioca and wheat.
Depending on botanical origin, molecular weight, degree of branching, and amylose-amylopectin ratio will vary.
Generally, there is 20-30% amylose and 70-80% amylopectin, even if there are starches with high amylose or amylopectin content (e.g. waxy corn). These differences justify the existence of starches with different chemical-physical characteristics and, to a certain extent, different digestibility.

  • corn: 24% amylose, 76% amylopectin;
  • waxy corn: 0,8% amylose, 99.2% amylopectin;
  • Hylon VII corn: 70% amylose, 30% amylopectin;
  • potatoes: 20% amylose, 80% amylopectin;
  • rice: 18.5 amylose, 81.5% amylopectin;
  • tapioca: 16.7% amylose, 83.3% amylopectin;
  • wheat: 25% amylose, 75% amylopectin.

Temperature and packaging of amylose and amylopectin

The chains of amylose, and to a lesser extent ramifications of amylopectin, thanks to the formation of hydrogen bonds with neighboring molecules and within the same molecules, have the tendency to aggregate. For this reason, pure amylose and amylopectin are poorly soluble in water at below 55 °C (131°F), and are more resistant to alpha-amylase action (resistant starch).
However, in aqueous solution, these granules hydrate increasing in volume of about 10%.
Above 55°C (131°F), the partially crystalline structure is lost, granules absorb further water, swell and pass to a disorganized structure, that is, starch gelatinization occurs, by which starch assumes an amorphous structure more easily attachable by alpha-amylase.

Granules-associated proteins

In granules, starch is present in association with proteins, many of which are hydrophobic, that means with low affinity for water. This association have the effect to hinder the interaction, in the intestinal lumen, between alpha-amylase, a polar protein, and the carbohydrates making up starch granules.
The physical processes to which cereals undergo before being eaten, such as milling or heating for several minutes, change the relationship between starch and the associated proteins, making it more available to α-amylase action.

Fibers

Alpha-amylase activity may also be hindered by the presence of nondigestible polysaccharides, the fibers: cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin.

Conclusions

The presence of inhibitors, of both chemical and physical type, hinders starch digestion, even when pancreatic α-amylase secretion is normal. This means that a part of starch, ranging from 1% to 10%, may escape the action of the enzyme, being then metabolized by colonic bacteria.
Refined starch is instead hydrolyzed efficiently, even when there is an exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), condition in which alpha-amylase concentration in gut lumen may be reduced to 10% of the normal.

References

Belitz .H.-D., Grosch W., Schieberle P. “Food Chemistry” 4th ed. Springer, 2009

Bender D.A. “Benders’ Dictionary of Nutrition and Food Technology”. 8th Edition. Woodhead Publishing. Oxford, 2006

Osorio-Dıaz P., Bello-Perez L.A., Agama-Acevedo E., Vargas-Torres A., Tovar J., Paredes-Lopez O. In vitro digestibility and resistant starch content of some industrialized commercial beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.). Food Chem 2002;78:333-7 doi:10.1016/S0308-8146(02)00117-6

Stipanuk M.H.. “Biochemical and physiological aspects of human nutrition” W.B. Saunders Company-An imprint of Elsevier Science, 2012

Blood glucose levels: the role of the liver and glucose-6-phosphatase

One of the main functions of the liver is to participate in the maintaining of blood glucose levels within well defined range (in the healthy state before meals 60-100 mg/dL or 3.33-5.56 mmol/L). To do it the liver releases glucose into the bloodstream in:

  • fasting state;
  • between meals;
  • during physical activity.

Blood glucose levels and hepatic glucose-6-phosphatase

In the liver, glycogen is the storage form of glucose which is released from the molecule not as such, but in the phosphorylated form i.e. with charge, the glucose 1-phosphate (this process is called glycogenolysis). The phosphorylated molecule can’t freely diffuse from the cell, but in the liver it is present the enzyme glucose-6-phosphatase that hydrolyzes glucose 6-phosphate, produced from glucose 1-phosphate in the reaction catalyzed by phosphoglucomutase, to glucose (an irreversible dephosphorylation).

glycogen(n glucose residues) + Pi → glucose 1-phosphate + glycogen(n-1 glucose residues)

glucose 1-phosphate ↔ glucose 6-phosphate

glucose 6-phosphate + H2O → glucose + Pi

Role of the liver and glucose 6-phosphatase in regulating blood glucose levelsThen, glucose can diffuse from the hepatocyte, via a transporter into the plasma membrane called GLUT2, into the bloodstream to be delivered to extra-hepatic cells, in primis neurons and red blood cells for which it is the main, and for red blood cells the only energy source (neurons, with the exception of those in some brain areas that can use only glucose as energy source, can derive energy from another source, the ketone bodies, which becomes predominant during periods of prolonged fasting).

Note: the liver obtains most of the energy required from the oxidation of fatty acids , not from glucose.
Glucose-6-phosphatase is present also in the kidney and gut but not in the muscle and brain; therefore in these tissues glucose-6-phosphate can’t be released from the cell.
Glucose-6-phosphatase plays an important role also in gluconeogenesis.

Glucose-6-phosphatase is present into the membrane of endoplasmic reticulum and the hydrolysis of glucose-6-phosphate occurs into its lumen (therefore this reaction is separated from the process of glycolysis). The presence of a specific transporter, the glucose-6-phosphate translocase, is required to transport the phosphorylated molecule from citosol into the lumen of endoplasmic reticulum. Although a glucose transporter is present into the membrane of endoplasmic reticulum, most of the released glucose is not transported back into the cytosol of the cell but is secreted into the bloodstream. Finally, an ion transporter transports back into the cytosol the inorganic phosphate released into the endoplasmic reticulum.

References

Nelson D.L., M. M. Cox M.M. Lehninger. Principles of biochemistry. 6th Edition. W.H. Freeman and Company, 2012

Roach P.J., Depaoli-Roach A.A., Hurley T.D and Tagliabracci V.C. Glycogen and its metabolism: some new developments and old themes. Biochem J 2012;441:763-787. doi:10.1042/BJ20111416

Stipanuk M.H., Caudill M.A. Biochemical, physiological, and molecular aspects of human nutrition. 3rd Edition. Elsevier health sciences, 2012

Glycogen: definition, structure and functions

Glycogen is an homopolysaccharide formed by units of glucose. Chemically similar to amylopectin, and therefore sometimes referred to as animal starch, compared to the latter it is more compact, extensively branched and larger, reaching a molecular weight up to 108 Da corresponding to about 600000 glucose molecules.
As in the amylopectin, glucose units in the main chain and in the lateral chains are linked by α-(1→4) glycosidic bonds. Lateral chains are joined to the main chain by an α-(1→6) glycosidic bond; unlike amylopectin branches are more frequent, approximately every 10 glucose units (rather than every 25-30 as in amylopectin) and are formed by a smaller numbers of glucose units.

Glycogen
Fig. 1 – Glycogen Structure

Glycogen is located in the cytosol of the cell in the form of hydrated granules of diameter between 1 to 4 µm and forms complexes with regulatory proteins and enzymes responsible for its synthesis and degradation.

Functions

Glycogen, discovered in 1857 by French physiologist Claude Bernard, is the storage form of glucose, and therefore of energy, in animals in which it is present in the liver, muscle (skeletal and heart muscle) and in lower amounts in nearly all the other tissues and organs.
In humans it represents less than 1% of the body’s caloric stores (the other form of caloric reserve, much more abundant, is triacylglycerols stored in adipose tissue) and is essential for maintaining normal glycemia too.
It represents about 10% of liver weight and 1% of muscle weight; although it is present in a higher concentration in the liver, the total stores in muscle are much higher thanks to its greater mass (in a non-fasting 70 kg adult male there are about 100 g of glycogen in the liver and 250 g in the muscle).

  • Liver glycogen stores is a glucose reserve that hepatocyte releases when needed to maintain a normal blood sugar levels: if you consider glucose availability (in a non-fasting 70 kg adult male) there is about 10 grams or 40 kcal in body fluids while hepatic glycogen can supply, also after a fasting night, about 600 kcal.
  • In skeletal and cardiac muscle, glucose from glycogen stores remains within the cell and is used as an energy source for muscle work.
  • The brain contains a small amount of glycogen, primarily in astrocytes. It accumulates during sleep and is mobilized upon waking, therefore suggesting its functional role in the conscious brain. These glycogen reserves also provide a moderate degree of protection against hypoglycemia.
  • It has a specialized role in fetal lung type II pulmonary cells. At about 26 weeks of gestation these cells start to accumulate glycogen and then to synthesize pulmonary surfactant, using it as a major substrate for the synthesis of surfactant lipids, of which dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine is the major component.
Glycogen: Dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine
Fig. 2 – Dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine

Glycogen and foods

It is absent from almost all foods because after an animal is killed it is rapidly broken down to glucose and then to lactic acid; it should be noted that the acidity consequently to lactic acid production gradually improves the texture and keeping qualities of the meat. The only dietary sources are oysters and other shellfish that are eaten virtually alive: they contain about 5% glycogen.

In humans, accumulation of glycogen is associated with weight gain due to water retention: for each gram of stored glycogen 3 grams of water are retained.

References

Nelson D.L., M. M. Cox M.M. Lehninger. Principles of biochemistry. 6th Edition. W.H. Freeman and Company, 2012

Roach P.J., Depaoli-Roach A.A., Hurley T.D and Tagliabracci V.C. Glycogen and its metabolism: some new developments and old themes. Biochem J 2012;441:763-787. doi:10.1042/BJ20111416

Stipanuk M.H., Caudill M.A. Biochemical, physiological, and molecular aspects of human nutrition. 3rd Edition. Elsevier health sciences, 2012

Long chain fatty acid synthesis in plants and animals

When excess calories are consumed from carbohydrates or proteins, such surplus is used to synthesize fatty acids and then triacylglycerols, while it doesn’t occur if the excess come from fats.

Metabolic pathways for saturated and unsaturated long chain fatty acid synthesis
Long Chain Fatty Acids Biosynthesis

CONTENTS

De novo fatty acid synthesis in plants and animals

De novo fatty acid synthesis is largely similar among plants and animals.
It occurs in chloroplasts of photosynthetic cells of higher plants, and in cytosol of animal cells by the concerted action of two enzymes: acetyl-CoA carboxylase (EC 6.4.1.2) and fatty acid synthase (EC 2.3.1.85).
Fatty acid synthase catalyzes a repeating four-step sequence by which the fatty acyl chain is extended by two carbons, at the carboxyl end, every each passage through the cycle; this four-step process is the same in all organisms.
In animals, the primary site for lipid metabolism is liver, not the adipose tissue. However, adipose tissue is a major organ system in which fatty acid synthesis occurs, though in humans it is less active than in many other animal species.
Although myristic acid, lauric acid and a trace of stearic acid may also be produced, in animals and plants the main product of these reactions is palmitic acid.
It should be noted that in certain plants, such as palm and coconut, chain termination occurs earlier than palmitic acid release: up to 90% of the fatty acids produced and then present in the oils of these plants are between 8 (caprylic acid) and 14 (myristic acid) carbons long (palmitic acid: 16 carbon atoms).

Synthesis of long chain saturated and unsaturated fatty acids

Palmitic acid is the commonest saturated fatty acid in plant and animal lipids, but generally it is not present in very large proportions because it may be undergo into several metabolic pathways.
In fact:

  • it is the precursor of stearic acid;
  • it may be desaturated (insertion of a double bond into fatty acid chain) to palmitoleic acid, the precursor of all fatty acids of omega-7 or n-7 family, in a reaction catalyzed by Δ9-desaturase (EC 1.14.19.1), an ubiquitous enzyme in both plant and animal kingdoms and the most active lipid enzyme in mammalian tissues, the same enzyme that catalyzes the desaturation of stearic acid to oleic acid (see below).
    Note: Δ9- desaturase inserts double bounds in the 9-10 position of the fatty acid carbon chain, position numbered from the carboxyl end of the molecule, and:

if the substrate is palmitic acid, the double bond is inserted between n-7 and n-8 position of the chain (in this case numbered from the methyl end of the molecule), so producing palmitoleic acid, the founder of omega-7 series;Numbering of carbons of palmitic acid, delta-9 desaturase and insertion of a double bond at the omega-7 position

if the substrate is stearic acid, the double bond is inserted between n-9 and n-10 position of the chain and oleic acid will be produced.Numbering of carbons of stearic, delta-9 desaturase and insertion of a double bond at the omega-9 position

  • It may be esterified into complex lipids.

Of course, in plants and animals there are fatty acids longer and/or more unsaturated than these just seen thanks to modification systems (again desaturation and elongation) that catalyze reactions of fatty acid synthesis that are organism- tissue- and cell- specific.
For example, stearic acid may be:

  • elongated to arachidic acid, behenic acid and lignoceric acid, all saturated fatty acids, in reactions catalyzed by elongases. Again, chain elongation occurs, both in mitochondria and in the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, by the addition of two carbon atom units at a time at the carboxylic end of the fatty acid through the action of fatty acid elongation systems (particularly long and very long saturated fatty acids, from 18 to 24 carbon atoms, are synthesized only on cytosolic face of the smooth endoplasmic reticulum);
  • desaturated, as seen, to oleic acid, an omega-9 or n-9 fatty acid, in a reaction catalyzed by Δ9-desaturase.
    Several researchers have postulated that the reason for which stearic acid is not hypercholesterolemic is its rapid conversion to oleic acid.

Oleic acid is the start point for the synthesis of many other unsaturated fatty acids by reactions of elongation and/or desaturation.
In fact:

  • gadoleic acid, erucic acid and nervonic acid, all monounsaturated fatty acids.
    Saturated fatty acids, and unsaturated fatty acids of the omega-9 series, usually oleic acid (but also palmitoleic acid and other omega-7 fatty acids) are the only fatty acids produced de novo in mammal systems.
  • Thanks to the consecutive action of the enzymes Δ12-desaturase (1.14.19.6) and Δ15-desaturase (EC 1.14.19.25), that insert a double bond respectively in the 12-13 and 15-16 position of the carbon chain of the fatty acid, oleic acid is converted first to linoleic acid, founder of all the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and then to alpha-linolenic acid, founder of all the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA that will be produced from these precursors through repeating reactions of elongation and desaturation).Numbering of carbon atoms of oleic acid and specific targets of desaturase action
  • In the case of essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiency, oleic acid may be desaturated and elongated to omega-9 polyunsaturated fatty acids, with accumulation especially of Mead acid.

Omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA synthesis

Animal tissues can desaturate fatty acids in the 9-10 position of the chain, thanks to the presence of Δ9 desaturase; as previously seen, if the substrate of the reaction is palmitic acid, the double bond will appear between n-7 and n-8 position, with stearic acid between n-9 and n-10 position, so leading to formation respectively of palmitoleic acid and oleic acid.
Animals lack Δ12- and Δ15-desaturases, enzymes able to desaturate carbon carbon bonds beyond the 9-10 position of the chain. For these reason, they can’t produce de novo omega-3 and omega-6 PUFA (which have double bonds also beyond the 9-10 position), that are so essential fatty acids.
Δ12- and Δ15-desaturases are present in plants; though many land plants lack Δ15-desaturase, also called omega-3 desaturase, planktons and aquatic plants in colder water possess it and produce abundant amounts of the omega-3 fatty acids.

References

Akoh C.C. and Min D.B. “Food lipids: chemistry, nutrition, and biotechnology”. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, 2008 3th ed. 2008

Bender D.A. “Benders’ dictionary of nutrition and food technology”. 2006, 8th Edition. Woodhead Publishing. Oxford

Burr G.O. and Burr M.M. A new deficiency disease produced by the rigid exclusion of fat from the diet. Nutr Rev 1973;31(8):148-149. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.1973.tb06008.x

Chow Ching K. “Fatty acids in foods and their health implication”. 3rd Edition. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, 2008

Rosenthal M.D., Glew R.H. Mediacal biochemistry. Human metabolism in health and disease. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009

Stipanuk M.H., Caudill M.A. Biochemical, physiological, and molecular aspects of human nutrition. 3rd Edition. Elsevier health sciences, 2012