Sterols, also known as steroid alcohols, are a subgroup of the steroids and an important class of organic molecules. They are a type of lipid. They occur naturally in plants, animals, and fungi, and can be also produced by some bacteria (however likely with different functions). The most familiar type of animal sterol is cholesterol, which is vital to cell membrane structure, and functions as a precursor to fat-soluble vitamins and steroid hormones.
Sterols of plants are called phytosterols and sterols of animals are called zoosterols. The most important zoosterol is cholesterol; notable phytosterols include campesterol, sitosterol, and stigmasterol. Ergosterol is a sterol present in the cell membrane of fungi, where it serves a role similar to cholesterol in animal cells.
Role in biochemistry
Sterols and related compounds play essential roles in the physiology of eukaryotic organisms. For example, cholesterol forms part of the cellular membrane in animals, where it affects the cell membrane's fluidity and serves as secondary messenger in developmental signaling. In humans and other animals, corticosteroids such as cortisol act as signaling compounds in cellular communication and general metabolism. Sterols are common components of human skin oils.
Phytosterols as a nutritional supplement
Phytosterols, more commonly known as plant sterols, have been shown in clinical trials to block cholesterol absorption sites in the human intestine, thus helping to reduce cholesterol absorption in humans. They are currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use as a food supplement; however, there is some concern that they may block absorption not only of cholesterol, but of other important nutrients as well. At present, the American Heart Association has recommended that supplemental plant sterols be taken only by those diagnosed with elevated cholesterol, and has particularly recommended that they not be taken by pregnant women or nursing mothers. Preliminary research has shown that phytosterols may have anticancer effects.
Chemical classification and structure
Sterols are a subgroup of steroids with a hydroxyl group at the 3-position of the A-ring. They are amphipathic lipids synthesized from acetyl-coenzyme A via the HMG-CoA reductase pathway. The overall molecule is quite flat. The hydroxyl group on the A ring is polar. The rest of the aliphatic chain is non-polar.
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