Lipid Digestion

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Illustration shows a row of absorptive epithelial cells that line the intestinal lumen. Hair-like microvilli project into the lumen. On the other side of the epithelial cells are capillaries and lymphatic vessels. In the intestinal lumen, lipids are emulsified by the bile. Lipases breakdown fats, also known as triglycerides, into fatty acids and monoglycerides. Fats are made up of three fatty acids attached to a 3-carbon glycerol backbone. In monoglycerides, two of the fatty acids are removed. The emulsified lipids form small, spherical particles called micelles that are absorbed by the epithelial cells. Inside the epithelial cells the fatty acids and monoglyerides are reassembled into triglycerides. The triglycerides aggregate with cholesterol, proteins, and phospholipids to form spherical chylomicrons. The chylomicrons are moved into a lymph capillary, which transports them to the rest of the body.
Lipids are digested and absorbed in the small intestine. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Lipid digestion begins in the stomach with the aid of lingual lipase and gastric lipase. However, the bulk of lipid digestion occurs in the small intestine due to pancreatic lipase. When chyme enters the duodenum, the hormonal responses trigger the release of bile, which is produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Bile aids in the digestion of lipids, primarily triglycerides by emulsification. Emulsification is a process in which large lipid globules are broken down into several small lipid globules. These small globules are more widely distributed in the chyme rather than forming large aggregates. Lipids are hydrophobic substances: in the presence of water, they will aggregate to form globules to minimize exposure to water. Bile contains bile salts, which are amphipathic, meaning they contain hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts. Thus, the bile salts hydrophilic side can interface with water on one side and the hydrophobic side interfaces with lipids on the other. By doing so, bile salts emulsify large lipid globules into small lipid globules.

Why is emulsification important for digestion of lipids? Pancreatic juices contain enzymes called lipases (enzymes that breakdown lipids). If the lipid in the chyme aggregates into large globules, very little surface area of the lipids is available for the lipases to act on, leaving lipid digestion incomplete. By forming an emulsion, bile salts increase the available surface area of the lipids many fold. The pancreatic lipases can then act on the lipids more efficiently and digest them. Lipases breakdown the lipids into fatty acids and glycerides. These molecules can pass through the plasma membrane of the cell and enter the epithelial cells of the intestinal lining. The bile salts surround long-chain fatty acids and monoglycerides forming tiny spheres called micelles. The micelles move into the brush border of the small intestine absorptive cells where the long-chain fatty acids and monoglycerides diffuse out of the micelles into the absorptive cells leaving the micelles behind in the chyme. The long-chain fatty acids and monoglycerides recombine in the absorptive cells to form triglycerides, which aggregate into globules and become coated with proteins. These large spheres are called chylomicrons. Chylomicrons contain triglycerides, cholesterol, and other lipids and have proteins on their surface. The surface is also composed of the hydrophilic phosphate “heads” of phospholipids. Together, they enable the chylomicron to move in an aqueous environment without exposing the lipids to water. Chylomicrons leave the absorptive cells via exocytosis. Chylomicrons enter the lymphatic vessels, and then enter the blood in the subclavian vein.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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