We have analyzed the phospholipid composition of various organs of patients with the cerebro-hepato-renal (Zellweger) syndrome. The phospholipid composition of tissues from controls and patients was very similar except for their plasmalogen contents. In controls about 50% of the phosphatidylethanolamine fraction of brain, heart, kidney and skeletal muscle and about 10% of that fraction in control liver tissue was found to consist of plasmalogen. In control heart muscle, but not in other control tissues about 25% of the phosphatidylcholine fraction consist of plasmalogens. In contrast, plasmalogens were nearly absent in the corresponding tissues of Zellweger patients.
The amount of phosphatidylethanolamine plasmalogens in both erythrocytes and fibroblasts of Zellweger patients is lowered significantly compared to control erythrocytes and control fibroblasts respectively, although this reduction is not as dramatic as in brain, heart, kidney, skeletal muscle and liver of patients. Phosphatidylcholine-plasmalogens are only present in low amounts in both controls, heterozygotes and patients.
In recent years considerable evidence has accumulated to show that peroxisomes are involved in cellular lipid metabolism. Notably, the key enzymes of ether lipid (plasmalogen) biosynthesis in rodents were recently found to be located in peroxisomes. Since electronmicroscopic studies have shown that peroxisomes are absent in liver and kidney of patients with the cerebro-hepato-renal syndrome, our results suggest that an inability to integrate these key enzymes in a functional peroxisome leads to a severe disturbance in plasmalogen biosynthesis.
We propose that the multiple clinical and biochemical defects in Zellweger patients are secondary to a deficiency in peroxisomal function.