Biologists have long debated why different tissues grow in the right locations in a developing embryo. A new study reveals the important role polyunsaturated fatty acids play in this process. Doctors already knew that these fatty acids were vital to fetal health – prenatal vitamins typically contain fatty acids – but this study suggests fatty acids are vital to proper development of unborn babies.

Fatty acids perform four important functions in the human body. They serve as building blocks for the fat in cell membranes, as a targeting molecule that carries protein where it needs to go, as messenger molecules, and as fuel molecules. Special enzymes activate these fatty acids, allowing the fatty acids to do their jobs. Scientists refer to these enzymes as acyl-CoA synthetases, or ACS for short.

One particular enzyme, ACSL4, activates polyunsaturated fatty acids. ACSL4 is located on the X chromosome. Scientists have linked genetic mutations in ACSL4 with developmental disorders in humans. In particular, they associate defects in ACSL4 with a particular type of mental retardation linked with defects on the X chromosome.

Studying the role of ACSL4 in the embryonic development of mammals is difficult because mammal mothers supply fetuses with polyunsaturated fatty acids, and fetuses need these fatty acids for implantation into the uterus and for development; both of these factors would greatly affect study results. To overcome these limitations, scientists in this study zebrafish that develop outside the mother’s body.

Published in Developmental Cell, the research results showed that zebrafish embryos without ACSL4 do not have properly organized tissues. The study demonstrates ACSL4 enzyme activity regulates the specific proteins and polyunsaturated fatty acids necessary to organize developing tissues. Making these connections provides basic information for future research investigating the roles of fatty acids in embryonic development.

The National Institutes of Health, the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation, and the Carnegie Institution for Science supported this research, as did the European Union 7th Framework Program Integrated Project, and the German Research Foundation. Researchers from Carnegie collaborated with scientists from Hammerschmidt lab at the University of Cologne Germany for this study.


Source: Institution, Carnegie. "Fatty acids crucial to embryonic development." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 30 Dec. 2013.