Sphingomyelins contain phosphocholine or phosphoethanolamine as their polar head group and are therefore classified along with glycerophospholipids as phospholipids. Indeed, sphingomyelins resemble phosphatidylcholines in their general properties and three-dimensional structure, and in having no net charge on their head groups . Sphingomyelins are present in the plasma membranes of animal cells and are especially prominent in myelin, a membranous sheath that surrounds and insulates the axons of some neurons—thus the name "sphingomyelins".
Sphingomyelin was first isolated by German chemist Johann L.W. Thudicum in the 1880s. The structure of sphingomyelin was first reported in 1927 as N-acyl-sphingosine-1-phosphorylcholine. Sphingomyelin content in mammals ranges from 2 to 15% in most tissues, with higher concentrations found in nerve tissues, red blood cells, and the ocular lenses. Sphingomyelin has significant structural and functional roles in the cell. It is a plasma membrane component and participates in many signaling pathways. The metabolism of sphingomyelin creates many products that play significant roles in the cell.
Sphingomyelin consists of a phosphocholine head group, a sphingosine, and a fatty acid. It is one of the few membrane phospholipids not synthesized from glycerol. The sphingosine and fatty acid can collectively be categorized as a ceramide. This composition allows sphingomyelin to play significant roles in signaling pathways: the degradation and synthesis of sphingomyelin produce important second messengers for signal transduction.
Sphingomyelin obtained from natural sources, such as eggs or bovine brain, contains fatty acids of various chain length. Sphingomyelin with set chain length, such as palmitoylsphingomyelin with a saturated 16 acyl chain, is available commercially.
Ideally, sphingomyelin molecules are shaped like a cylinder, however many molecules of sphingomyelin have a significant chain mismatch (the lengths of the two hydrophobic chains are significantly different). The hydrophobic chains of sphingomyelin tend to be much more saturated than other phospholipids. The main transition phase temperature of sphingomyelins is also higher compared to the phase transition temperature of similar phospholipids, near 37 C. This can introduce lateral heterogeneity in the membrane, generating domains in the membrane bilayer.