Life, death and membrane bilayers

  • Hulbert A
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Membrane bilayers are essential elements of life, and the synthesis of the hydrocarbons that make up membrane bilayers may have preceded the appearance of life on Earth. Membrane-associated processes are significant components of metabolism, and the acyl composition of membrane bilayers is associated with metabolic activity in a predictable manner. This has resulted in the 'membrane pacemaker' theory of metabolism, which proposes that the relative balance between monounsaturated and long-chain polyunsaturated acyl chains in membrane bilayers is a fundamental determinant of metabolic rate of a species. The omega-3 polyunsaturated docosahexaenoate is an especially important component of membranes in this regard. Whilst it is suggested that the physical properties of membrane polyunsaturates are important with respect to their influence on metabolic rate, it is their chemistry that is important in aging. Membrane acyl composition is related to maximum lifespan in mammals and birds, probably via their role in lipid peroxidation. Calorie restriction modifies acyl composition of membrane bilayers and is associated with decreased membrane lipid peroxidation and lifespan extension. The membrane pacemaker theory of metabolism has given birth to the membrane pacemaker hypothesis of aging, which will require further investigation.

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  • A. J. Hulbert

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