How a Phospholipid Bilayer Is Both Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic

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  • 0:19 Hydrophobic Definition
  • 0:38 Hydrophilic Definition
  • 0:49 Phospholipid Structure
  • 1:55 Phospholipid Definition
  • 2:51 Phospholipid Bilayer
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kristin Klucevsek

Kristin has taught college Biology courses and has her doctorate in Biology.

In this lesson, we will learn what gives phospholipids a dual personality. How can this molecule be both hydrophobic and hydrophilic, and why is this important to a cell?

Hydrophobic vs. Hydrophilic

You're probably familiar with what happens to a bottle of Italian dressing when it sits on the counter for too long. The oil floats in a layer on top with a watery layer underneath. And if you don't shake it up, you're likely to end up with an oily mess all over your salad.

Oil is a hydrophobic substance. 'Hydro' comes from the Greek word for water, and 'phobic' is literally the fear of it.

Although oil is not exactly scared of water, it does run away from it and huddles together so that the least amount of oil is touching water at any time. This gives you the two separate layers of oil and water that you see in Italian dressing. Anything in that watery layer of the salad dressing is hydrophilic. Hydrophilic means a love of water. It comes from the Greek 'hydro,' for water, and 'philia,' a love for it.

The cell membrane separates the intracellular and extracellular membranes
Intra- and extracellular

Phospholipid Structure

Of course, hydrophobic and hydrophilic substances are not unique to your salad dressings.

One of the most important examples of a substance that's both hydrophobic and hydrophilic interacting in nature is actually within all of our cells. Our bodies, and all living things on Earth, are made up of one or more cells, the basic fundamental unit of life.

Our bodies are composed of trillions of cells. Some belong to our bodies, like skin cells and heart cells, and some don't, like the single-celled bacteria living in all of our guts. All cells, however, have a few things in common, and one of these things is the need to create a barrier between the outside world and the inside of the cell. Plant, animal, and bacterial cells alike do this by having a cell membrane that separates the intracellular environment from the extracellular environment outside the cell.

Although some components of the cell membrane are different, one of the most uniformly important and conserved components of a cell membrane is an important molecule that has a dual personality - it's both hydrophobic and hydrophilic. Behold a phospholipid.

A phospholipid is named for its two main parts, a phosphate group and a lipid. It's usually drawn with the phosphate group as a circle, and this is referred to as the hydrophilic head. Due to its negative charge, this phosphate group is also polar.

The phosphate group and the lipid are connected by a glycerol group.

Most phospholipids have two lipid tails made of hydrocarbon fatty acids bound to the glycerol by an ester linkage. These hydrophobic tails are nonpolar.

So what do you think would happen if we took a couple phospholipids and threw them into our bottle of Italian dressing?

Birds of a feather flock together, and hydrophobic molecules like to stick together, too. So do hydrophilic molecules. Therefore, the hydrophobic tails of a phospholipid would want to stay with the oil layer of the salad dressing, while the hydrophilic head of the phospholipid would be attracted to the water layer. It would look like the phospholipid was doing a hand stand in the salad dressing.

The phosphate group and lipid that make up a phospholipid are joined together by a glycerol group
Phospholipid definition

The Phospholipid Bilayer

Cell membranesphospholipid bilayer

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