What is Fatty Acid? - Composition & Structure

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  • 0:01 What Are Fatty Acids?
  • 0:29 Basic Structure of Fatty Acids
  • 1:52 Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats
  • 2:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: John Williams
Fatty acids are key components of triglycerides, which we use to store energy in our bodies. This lesson discusses the important characteristics of these acids in the human body.

What Are Fatty Acids?

A fatty acid is one of the major components of a triglyceride, which is a form of lipid that is used in the body to store energy. A lipid is just a type of molecule that includes, among other things, fatty acids. Triglycerides are a secondary energy source that the body can use in the event that there is not enough sugar (our primary energy source) in the system. While fatty acids vary in terms of chemical characteristics, they all have some basic qualities in common.

Basic Structure of Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are composed largely of a chain of carbon atoms bonded with hydrogen atoms. At one of the terminal ends of a fatty acid is a carboxyl group (-COOH), which is the reactive portion of the molecule and will participate in chemical reactions to make lipids and to store energy. Specifically, this carboxyl group will typically bond with one of the hydroxyl groups (-OH) on a glycerol molecule in a process known as dehydration synthesis. As this bond forms, energy is stored and water is released as a product of the reaction.

Fatty acids vary in terms of the number of carbons that they contain, though it is typically an even number. This chain can be as short as two carbons or as long as necessary for the functions needed, but there will be an even number in the final fatty acid molecule. Since these carbons are located in the chemically inert (non-reactive) part of the molecule, the number of carbons plays a role in the structural characteristics more than in the reactive characteristics.

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