Since the discovery in 1929 that certain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are essential for life and health, intense investigation has revealed the multiplicity of members in each of several families of PUFA, no two of which are equivalent.

The quantified nutrient requirements for the essential dietary precursors of the two dominant families of PUFA have been estimated, and the general functions of these families are slowly becoming known.

The PUFA are essential components of structural membrane lipids. The functions of the individual members are not yet differentiated, except as they act as precursors of synthesis of unique octadecanoid, eicosanoid, and docosanoid products of oxidation that have potent biological properties. The PUFA occur in animals and higher plants as ubiquitous and essential components of structural lipid that are in a dynamic equilibrium with the pool of dietary acyl groups.

Many human diseases have been found to involve unique essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiencies or distortions of the normal equilibrium pattern. The equilibrium is influenced by the level of dietary intake or precursors, by the presence of competing essential and nonessential acyl groups, by nonoptimum intake of other essential nutrients, by hormonal effects, by drug therapy, and by other effects upon physiological condition.

With the many variables already known to modulate or control the equilibrium, it should be possible with more precise understanding of each variable to shift abnormal equilibria in the direction of normalcy. This perhaps will be the next area of intensive investigation in this field of nutrition and metabolism.