Although vitamin E has been known as an essential nutrient for reproduction since 1922, we are far from understanding the mechanisms of its physiological functions. Vitamin E is the term for a group of tocopherols and tocotrienols, of which alpha-tocopherol has the highest biological activity. Due to the potent antioxidant properties of tocopherols, the impact of alpha-tocopherol in the prevention of chronic diseases believed to be associated with oxidative stress has often been studied, and beneficial effects have been demonstrated. Recent observations that the alpha-tocopherol transfer protein in the liver specifically sorts out RRR-alpha-tocopherol from all incoming tocopherols for incorporation into plasma lipoproteins, and that alpha-tocopherol has signaling functions in vascular smooth muscle cells that cannot be exerted by other forms of tocopherol with similar antioxidative properties, have raised interest in the roles of vitamin E beyond its antioxidative function. Also, gamma-tocopherol might have functions apart from being an antioxidant. It is a nucleophile able to trap electrophilic mutagens in lipophilic compartments and generates a metabolite that facilitates natriuresis. The metabolism of vitamin E is equally unclear. Excess alpha-tocopherol is converted into alpha-CEHC and excreted in the urine. Other tocopherols, like gamma- and delta-tocopherol, are almost quantitatively degraded and excreted in the urine as the corresponding CEHCs. All rac alpha-tocopherol compared to RRR-alpha-tocopherol is preferentially degraded to alpha-CEHC. Thus, there must be a specific, molecular role of RRR-alpha-tocopherol that is regulated by a system that sorts, distributes, and degrades the different forms of vitamin E, but has not yet been identified. In this article we try to summarize current knowledge on the function of vitamin E, with emphasis on its antioxidant vs. other properties, the preference of the organism for RRR-alpha-tocopherol, and its metabolism to CEHCs.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin. It is comprised of a family of hydrocarbon compounds characterised by a chromanol ring with a phytol side chain referred to as tocopherols and tocotrienols. Tocopherols possess a saturated phytol side chain whereas the side chain of tocotrienols have three unsaturated residues. Isomers of these compounds are distinguished by the number and arrangement of methyl substituents attached to the chromanol ring. The predominant isomer found in the body is alpha-tocopherol, which has three methyl groups in addition to the hydroxyl group attached to the benzene ring. The diet of animals is comprised of different proportions of tocopherol isomers and specific alpha-tocopherol-binding proteins are responsible for retention of this isomer in the cells and tissues of the body. Because of the lipophilic properties of the vitamin it partitions into lipid storage organelles and cell membranes. It is, therefore, widely distributed in throughout the body. Subcellular distribution of alpha-tocopherol is not uniform with lysosomes being particularly enriched in the vitamin compared to other subcellular membranes. Vitamin E is believed to be involved in a variety of physiological and biochemical functions. The molecular mechanism of these functions is believed to be mediated by either the antioxidant action of the vitamin or by its action as a membrane stabiliser. alpha-Tocopherol is an efficient scavenger of lipid peroxyl radicals and, hence, it is able to break peroxyl chain propagation reactions. The unpaired electron of the tocopheroxyl radical thus formed tends to be delocalised rendering the radical more stable. The radical form may be converted back to alpha-tocopherol in redox cycle reactions involving coenzyme Q. The regeneration of alpha-tocopherol from its tocopheroxyloxyl radical greatly enhances the turnover efficiency of alpha-tocopherol in its role as a lipid antioxidant. Vitamin E forms complexes with the lysophospholipids and free fatty acids liberated by the action of membrane lipid hydrolysis. Both these products form 1:1 stoichiometric complexes with vitamin E and as a consequence the overall balance of hydrophobic:hydrophillic affinity within the membrane is restored. In this way, vitamin E is thought to negate the detergent-like properties of the hydrolytic products that would otherwise disrupt membrane stability. The location and arrangement of vitamin E in biological membranes is presently unknown. There is, however, a considerable body of information available from studies of model membrane systems consisting of phospholipids dispersed in aqueous systems. From such studies using a variety of biophysical methods, it has been shown that alpha-tocopherol intercalates into phospholipid bilayers with the long axis of the molecule oriented parallel to the lipid hydrocarbon chains. The molecule is able to rotate about its long axis and diffuse laterally within fluid lipid bilayers. The vitamin does not distribute randomly throughout phospholipid bilayers but forms complexes of defined stoichiometry which coexist with bilayers of pure phospholipid. alpha-Tocopherol preferentially forms complexes with phosphatidylethanolamines rather than phosphatidylcholines, and such complexes more readily form nonlamellar structures. The fact that alpha-tocopherol does not distribute randomly throughout bilayers of phospholipid and tends to form nonbilayer complexes with phosphatidylethanolamines would be expected to reduce the efficiency of the vitamin in its action as a lipid antioxidant and to destabilise rather than stabilise membranes. The apparent disparity between putative functions of vitamin E in biological membranes and the behaviour in model membranes will need to be reconciled.