Sphingolipids are a class of lipids derived from the aliphatic amino alcohol sphingosine. The sphingosine backbone is O-linked to a (usually) charged head group such as ethanolamine, serine, or choline. The backbone is also amide-linked to an acyl group, such as a fatty acid. Sphingolipids are often found in neural tissue, and play an important role in both signal transmission and cell recognition.
There are three main types of sphingolipids: ceramides, sphingomyelins, and glycosphingolipids, which differ in the substituents on their head group (see image). Ceramides are the simplest type of sphingolipid. They consist simply of a fatty acid chain attached through an amide linkage to sphingosine. Sphingomyelins have a phosphorylcholine or phosphoroethanolamine molecule esterified to the 1-hydroxy group of a ceramide. Glycosphingolipids are ceramides with one or more sugar residues joined in a β-glycosidic linkage at the 1-hydroxyl position. Glycosphingolipids may be further subdivided into cerebrosides and gangliosides. Cerebrosides have a single glucose or galactose at the 1-hydroxy position, while gangliosides have at least three sugars, one of which must be sialic acid.
Sphingolipids are commonly believed to protect the cell surface against harmful environmental factors by forming a mechanically stable and chemically resistant outer leaflet of the plasma membrane lipid bilayer. Certain complex glycosphingolipids were found to be involved in specific functions, such as cell recognition and signaling. The first feature depends mainly on the physical properties of the sphingolipids, whereas signaling involves specific interactions of the glycan structures of glycosphingolipids with similar lipids present on neighboring cells or with proteins.