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  • Glycerol, short  and medium chain fatty acids (chain length less than 14 carbons) are directly absorbed from the intestinal lumen in to the portal vein and taken to liver for further utilization.
  • Long chain fatty acids, free cholesterol  and β- acyl glycerol together with bile salts form mixed micelles.


  • Micelles are disk-shaped clusters of amphipathic lipids that coalesce with their hydrophobic groups on the inside  and their hydrophilic groups on the outside of clusters (Figure-1).
  • Mixed micelles are soluble in the aqueous environment of the intestinal lumen
  • They are about 200 times smaller than emulsion droplets (4-7 nm versus 1µm for emulsion droplets).
  • Micelles are necessary because they transport the poorly soluble monoglycerides and fatty acids to the surface of the enterocyte where they can be absorbed.
  • The micelles approach the brush border membrane of the enterocytes .This membrane is  separated from the liquid contents of the intestinal lumen by an unstirred water layer that mixes poorly with the bulk fluid (Figure-2).
  • The hydrophilic surface of the micelles facilitate the transport of the hydrophobic lipids through the unstirred water layer to the brush border where they are absorbed.

 Micelle structure

Figure-1- Micelles are disk-shaped clusters of amphipathic lipids that coalesce with their hydrophobic groups on the inside and hydrophilic groups on the outside of the clusters.

  • Micelles constantly break  down and re-form
  • It is the monoglycerides and fatty acids that are free in solution that are absorbed, NOT the micelles.
  • Because of their nonpolar nature, monoglycerides and fatty acids can just diffuse across the plasma membrane of the enterocyte.
  • Some absorption may be facilitated by specific transport proteins

 Absorption of dietray fat

Figure-2- Absorption of lipids contained in mixed micelles by intestinal mucosal cell

 Cholesterol absorption

Some of the cholesterol in the small intestine is dietary cholesterol, and some is poured  there by the liver, arriving via the bile (Figure-3). Of the total cholesterol that passes through the small intestine, only half is typically absorbed, and the rest is eliminated in the feces. Thus, cholesterol in the bile is an example of a substance that is targeted for excretion via the digestive tract.

 Cholesterol absorption

Figure-3- Absorption and excretion of cholesterol

 Clinical Significance

  • The drug ezetimibe blocks a protein that specifically mediates cholesterol transport across the apical plasma membrane of enterocytes.
  • Ezetimibe has been shown to be effective at reducing levels of LDL cholesterol, particularly when combined with a statin, a drug that inhibits cholesterol synthesis in the liver.

 Lipid Malabsorption (Steatorrhea)

  • Lipid malabsorption results in increased lipids including fat soluble vitamins A,D E and K in the feces.
  • Cause may be pancreatic insufficiency, including cystic fibrosis , chronic diseases of pancreas or surgical removal of pancreas
  • Shortened bowel, Celiac diseases, sprue or crohn’s disease
  • May be bile duct obstruction due to gall stones, tumor of head of pancreas, enlarged lymph nodes etc.
  • Milk  and coconut oil are used therapeutically since they  contain medium chain fatty acids.

 Secretion of lipids from enterocytes

  • Once inside the enterocyte, monoglycerides and fatty acids are re-synthesized into TAG.
  • Lysophospholipids are recycled to form phospholipids.
  • Cholesterol is re acylated to form Cholesteryl esters
  • Long chain fatty acids are used for esterification to form TGs, phospholipids and cholesteyl esters.
  • Short and medium chain fatty acid are released in to the portal circulation and are carried by serum albumin to liver.
  • The TGs are packaged, along with cholesterol and fat soluble vitamins, into chylomicrons  (Figure-4)
  • Chylomicrons are lipoproteins, special particles that are designed for the transport of lipids in the circulation.
  • Chylomicrons are released by exocytosis at the basolateral surface of the enterocytes. Because they are particles, they are too large to enter typical capillaries.
  • Instead they enter lacteals, lymphatic capillaries that poke up into the center of each villus.
  • Chylomicrons then flow into the circulation via lymphatic vessels.

 Lipid absorption and transport

Figure-4- Absorption and transport of lipids

 Structure of Chylomicron

  • Size: 0.1–1 µm
  • Average composition (figure-5)
  • TG (84%)
  • Cholesterol(2%)
  • Ester Cholesterol (4%)
  • Phospholipid (8%)
  • Apo lipoproteins (2%)

 Structure of chylomicron

Figure-5- The nonpolar lipid core consists of mainly triacylglycerol and cholesteryl ester and is surrounded by a single surface layer of amphipathic phospholipid and cholesterol molecules . These are oriented so that their polar groups face outward to the aqueous medium, as in the cell membrane.The protein moiety of a lipoprotein is known as an apolipoprotein or apoprotein, (B48).

Transport and Utilization of chylomicrons

The clearance of chylomicrons from the blood is rapid, the half-time of disappearance being under 1 hour in humans. Fatty acids originating from chylomicron triacylglycerol are delivered mainly to adipose tissue, heart, and muscle (80%), while about 20% goes to the liver. Triacylglycerol is hydrolyzed progressively through a diacylglycerol to a monoacylglycerol and finally to free fatty acids plus glycerol. Some of the released free fatty acids return to the circulation, attached to albumin, but the bulk is transported into the tissues. The resulting  chylomicron remnants, rich in cholesterol  are taken up by the liver by receptor-mediated endocytosis.

 Clinical significance of Chylomicron synthesis and utilization

  • Defective synthesis- Due to deficiency of apo-B 48 protein. The triglyceride may accumulate in intestinal cells.
  • Chyluria-  Due to an abnormal connection between urinary tract and lymphatic drainage system of the intestines, forming Chylous fistula. Characterized by passage of Milky urine.
  • Chylothorax- There is an abnormal connection between pleural space and the lymphatic drainage of small intestine resulting in accumulation of lymph in pleural cavity giving Milky pleural effusion

Summary of lipid digestion and Absorption (Figure-6)

 Summary of digestion and absorption of lipids

Figure-6- 1) Triglycerides are broken down by lipases 2) absorption is mediated by micelles,3)  inside the intestinal cells chylomicrons are synthesized for transportation of absorbed lipids 4) Chylomicrons deliver absorbed TAG to the body’s cells. TAG in chylomicrons and other lipoproteins are hydrolyzed by lipoprotein lipase, an enzyme that is found in capillary endothelial cells. Monoglycerides and fatty acids released from digestion of TAG then diffuse into cells.

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