Arachidonic Acid: Your Body's Essential Ally

Arachidonic acid, often abbreviated as AA, is a crucial fatty acid found in the phospholipids of cell membranes in the human body. This introduction sets out to explore the mysterious nature of Arachidonic acids, diving into their discovery, composition, biological importance, and diverse roles in both health and disease.


What is arachidonic acid?

Arachidonic acid (AA) is an essential omega-6 fatty acid that plays a pivotal role in various physiological processes within the human body. It is a key component of cell membranes, particularly in the brain, muscles, and liver. One of its primary functions is serving as a precursor for the synthesis of eicosanoids, a diverse group of signaling molecules involved in inflammation, immune response, blood clotting, and the regulation of blood pressure. Eicosanoids derived from arachidonic acid include prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes, each with distinct biological effects.


While arachidonic acid is vital for numerous bodily functions, it is not synthesized by the body and must be obtained from dietary sources. Foods rich in arachidonic acid include animal products such as meat, eggs, and fish. The balance of arachidonic acid levels in the body is tightly regulated, as an excess can contribute to inflammation and various chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and cancer. Conversely, a deficiency in arachidonic acid can impair immune function and lead to neurological abnormalities.


When and how was arachidonic acid discovered?

Figure 1. The structure of arachidonic acid (image adapted from PubChem)

The discovery of arachidonic acid begins in the early 20th century when scientists first started unraveling the complexities of fatty acids. It wasn't until the 1930s and 1940s that researchers began to identify and classify individual fatty acids, thanks to the groundbreaking work of biochemists such as George and Mildred Burr. George and Mildred Burr conducted extensive studies on the dietary requirements of animals, particularly the essential fatty acids necessary for growth and development. In 1929, they discovered that certain unsaturated fatty acids were essential for maintaining the health of laboratory rats. This finding laid the groundwork for further research into the role of fatty acids in human nutrition. Fast forward to the 1950s, when scientists began to elucidate the biochemical pathways involved in the metabolism of fatty acids. It was during this time that arachidonic acid, a member of the omega-6 family of fatty acids, was identified as a key precursor for the synthesis of potent signaling molecules known as eicosanoids.


Arachidonic acid is a 20-carbon polyunsaturated fatty acid with four double bonds located at positions 5, 8, 11, and 14 from the methyl end of the carbon chain. Its chemical structure consists of a carboxyl group (-COOH) at one end and a methyl group (-CH3) at the other, with a flexible hydrocarbon chain in between.


How is arachidonic acid synthesized?

Figure 2. Linoleic acid metabolism yielding arachidonic acid (Hanna V.S. et al, 2018).

The biosynthesis of arachidonic acid involves a series of enzymatic reactions that occur within the cells, primarily in the endoplasmic reticulum and peroxisomes. This process is tightly regulated and involves several key enzymes, genes, and signaling pathways.

1. Initiation: The biosynthesis of arachidonic acid typically begins with the conversion of the essential fatty acid linoleic acid (LA, 18:2n-6) to gamma-linolenic acid (GLA, 18:3n-6) by the enzyme delta-6-desaturase (D6D), encoded by the FADS2 gene. This step is the rate-limiting step in the pathway and occurs in the endoplasmic reticulum.

2. Conversion to Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA): GLA is further elongated by the enzyme elongase to form dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA, 20:3n-6).

3. Conversion to Arachidonic Acid (AA): DGLA is then desaturated by delta-5-desaturase (D5D) to form arachidonic acid (AA, 20:4n-6), which is the precursor for various bioactive lipid mediators. The delta-5-desaturase enzyme is encoded by the FADS1 gene.

4. Regulation: The biosynthesis of arachidonic acid is regulated by various factors, including dietary intake of essential fatty acids, hormonal regulation, and genetic factors affecting the expression and activity of key enzymes involved in the pathway.

5. Related Pathways and Metabolites:

  • Eicosanoid Pathway: Arachidonic acid serves as the precursor for the synthesis of eicosanoids, including prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes, through the action of cyclooxygenase (COX) and lipoxygenase (LOX) enzymes.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acid Metabolism: Arachidonic acid biosynthesis is counterbalanced by the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which compete with arachidonic acid for enzymatic conversion and can lead to the production of anti-inflammatory lipid mediators.

Overall, the biosynthesis of arachidonic acid is a complex and tightly regulated process involving multiple enzymatic steps, genes, and signaling pathways. Understanding this pathway is crucial for elucidating its role in health and disease and for developing targeted therapeutic interventions.


What are the metabolism pathways of arachidonic acid?

Arachidonic acid metabolism is a complex process involving several pathways and enzymes. Here's a detailed overview:

1. Release of Arachidonic Acid (AA)

Arachidonic acid is stored esterified in the phospholipids of cell membranes. Upon stimulation by various stimuli such as hormones, cytokines, or mechanical stress, phospholipase A2 (PLA2) is activated. PLA2 cleaves the sn-2 position of phospholipids, releasing arachidonic acid.

2. Metabolism via Cyclooxygenase (COX) Pathway

Arachidonic acid can be metabolized by cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes into prostaglandins and thromboxanes. COX-1 and COX-2 catalyze the conversion of arachidonic acid to prostaglandin G2 (PGG2), which is subsequently reduced to prostaglandin H2 (PGH2). PGH2 is further converted by specific prostaglandin synthases into various prostaglandins and thromboxanes, which exert diverse biological effects such as inflammation, vasodilation, and platelet aggregation.

3. Metabolism via Lipoxygenase (LOX) Pathway

Arachidonic acid can also be metabolized by lipoxygenase (LOX) enzymes into leukotrienes and lipoxins. 5-Lipoxygenase (5-LOX) catalyzes the conversion of arachidonic acid into 5-hydroperoxyeicosatetraenoic acid (5-HPETE). 5-HPETE is then converted into leukotriene A4 (LTA4), which serves as the precursor for various leukotrienes involved in inflammation and immune regulation. Lipoxins are synthesized from arachidonic acid through interactions between 5-LOX and other enzymes, resulting in anti-inflammatory and pro-resolving lipid mediators.

4. Metabolism via Cytochrome P450 Pathway

Arachidonic acid can undergo metabolism by cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes, leading to the formation of epoxyeicosatrienoic acids (EETs) and hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acids (HETEs). EETs and HETEs are involved in the regulation of vascular tone, inflammation, and cell signaling.

5. Regulation and Crosstalk

Arachidonic acid metabolism is tightly regulated by various factors including substrate availability, enzyme expression, and cellular signaling pathways. There is significant crosstalk between the different arachidonic acid metabolic pathways, influencing the balance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory lipid mediators in response to physiological and pathological stimuli.

Figure 3. Overview of the arachidonic acid (AA) metabolism pathways (Wang B. et al, 2021)

Figure 2. Overview of the arachidonic acid (AA) metabolism pathways (Wang B. et al, 2021).


Why is arachidonic acid important to human?

Arachidonic acid (AA) is crucial to human health and plays diverse and critical roles in the pathophysiology of various diseases due to its involvement in the synthesis of bioactive lipid mediators, such as prostaglandins, leukotrienes, thromboxanes, and lipoxins.

1. Inflammation

Prostaglandins derived from arachidonic acid, particularly prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), exert potent pro-inflammatory effects by stimulating vasodilation, increasing vascular permeability, and promoting the recruitment of immune cells to inflamed tissues. PGE2 binds to specific prostaglandin receptors (EP receptors) on immune cells, leading to the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines. Leukotrienes, another class of arachidonic acid metabolites, are potent chemoattractants for neutrophils, eosinophils, and other inflammatory cells. They enhance inflammation by promoting the adhesion of leukocytes to endothelial cells and increasing vascular permeability. The dysregulation of arachidonic acid metabolism, leading to an imbalance between pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory mediators, contributes to the chronic inflammation observed in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma.


2. Cardiovascular Disease

Arachidonic acid-derived eicosanoids play pivotal roles in the regulation of platelet aggregation and vascular tone, influencing cardiovascular health. Thromboxane A2 (TXA2), synthesized from arachidonic acid via the COX pathway, promotes platelet aggregation and vasoconstriction, contributing to thrombotic events such as myocardial infarction and stroke. Prostacyclin (PGI2), another arachidonic acid metabolite synthesized via the COX pathway, opposes the actions of TXA2 by inhibiting platelet aggregation and promoting vasodilation. Imbalances in the TXA2/PGI2 ratio, favoring increased TXA2 production, are associated with cardiovascular diseases characterized by abnormal clot formation and impaired vascular function.


3. Cancer

   Arachidonic acid-derived eicosanoids, particularly prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), play multifaceted roles in cancer progression. PGE2 promotes tumor growth by stimulating cancer cell proliferation, inhibiting apoptosis, and enhancing angiogenesis. In addition to its direct effects on tumor cells, PGE2 modulates the tumor microenvironment by promoting inflammation, immunosuppression, and the production of pro-angiogenic factors. These mechanisms collectively contribute to tumor progression, metastasis, and resistance to therapy.


4. Neurological Disorders

In neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases, arachidonic acid and its metabolites contribute to neuronal damage and dysfunction. Activated microglia and astrocytes produce inflammatory mediators such as leukotrienes and prostaglandins, which exacerbate neuroinflammation and oxidative stress. Pro-inflammatory eicosanoids disrupt the blood-brain barrier, allowing the infiltration of immune cells and inflammatory molecules into the brain parenchyma. This perpetuates a cycle of neuroinflammation and neuronal injury, contributing to the pathogenesis of disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis.


5. Pain and Fever

Prostaglandins, particularly prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), mediate pain and fever responses by sensitizing nociceptive neurons and acting on the hypothalamus, respectively. PGE2 binds to EP receptors on sensory neurons, leading to the activation of intracellular signaling pathways that enhance neuronal excitability and pain transmission. Additionally, PGE2 activates EP receptors in the hypothalamus, triggering the release of prostaglandin-mediated fever mediators such as interleukin-1β (IL-1β). This initiates a cascade of events culminating in the elevation of body temperature, a protective response to infection or inflammation.


How can we absorb enough arachidonic acid?

To ensure adequate intake of arachidonic acid (AA), you can incorporate certain foods into your diet that are rich in this essential fatty acid. Here are some dietary sources of arachidonic acid:

1. Animal-Based Foods

  • Fatty fish: Salmon, mackerel, trout, and sardines are excellent sources of arachidonic acid.
  • Meat: Beef, pork, and poultry contain significant amounts of arachidonic acid, particularly in the fat.
  • Organ meats: Liver and kidney are rich sources of arachidonic acid.
  • Eggs: Egg yolks contain arachidonic acid, making them a valuable dietary source.

2. DHA and EPA Supplementation

While arachidonic acid is not typically found in plant-based foods, some algae-based supplements may contain arachidonic acid, along with other omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

3. Breast Milk

For infants, breast milk is a natural source of arachidonic acid, providing the necessary fatty acids for growth and development.

4. Balanced Diet

Consuming a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods, including those rich in arachidonic acid, can help ensure adequate intake. Including fish, lean meats, eggs, and other sources of healthy fats in your diet can contribute to meeting your arachidonic acid needs.

5. Considerations

It's essential to balance your intake of arachidonic acid with other essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., DHA and EPA), to maintain overall health and optimize the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. While arachidonic acid is necessary for health, excessive intake may contribute to inflammation in some individuals. Therefore, moderation and balance in dietary fat intake are key.


Discover more about arachidonic acids with MetwareBio!

MetwareBio stands as a premier provider of metabolomics services, specializing in lipidomics tailored to meet the specific needs of researchers. Our advanced technologies and specialized expertise allow for the precise analysis and characterization of fatty acids including arachidonic acid and its metabolites. Through state-of-the-art analytical techniques such as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) and robust bioinformatics tools, we offer comprehensive insights into fatty acid metabolism and its implications in health and disease. By partnering with MetwareBio, researchers gain access to a dedicated team committed to delivering high-quality data and actionable insights to propel scientific research forward. Join us in delving deep into the intricacies of arachidonic acid and uncovering new avenues for discovery.



1. Hanna VS, Hafez EAA. Synopsis of arachidonic acid metabolism: A review. J Adv Res. 2018;11:23-32. Published 2018 Mar 13. doi:10.1016/j.jare.2018.03.005

2. Wang B, Wu L, Chen J, et al. Metabolism pathways of arachidonic acids: mechanisms and potential therapeutic targets. Signal Transduct Target Ther. 2021;6(1):94. Published 2021 Feb 26. doi:10.1038/s41392-020-00443-w


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