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Engineering LibreTexts

1.2: Biological Molecules

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  • Life on Earth is primarily made up of four major classes of biological molecules, or biomolecules. These include carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids.

    Most people are familiar with carbohydrates, one type of macromolecule, especially when it comes to what we eat. Carbohydrates are, in fact, an essential part of our diet; grains, fruits, and vegetables are all natural sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide energy to the body, particularly through glucose, a simple sugar that is a component of starch and an ingredient in many staple foods. Carbohydrates also have other important functions in humans, animals, and plants. Carbohydrates can be represented by the stoichiometric formula (CH2O)n, where n is the number of carbons in the molecule. In other words, the ratio of carbon to hydrogen to oxygen is 1:2:1 in carbohydrate molecules. This formula also explains the origin of the term “carbohydrate”: the components are carbon (“carbo”) and the components of water (hence, “hydrate”). The chemical formula for glucose is C6H12O6. In humans, glucose is an important source of energy.

    During cellular respiration, energy is released from glucose, and that energy is used to help make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Plants synthesize glucose using carbon dioxide and water, and glucose in turn is used for energy requirements for the plant. Excess glucose is often stored as starch that is catabolized (the breakdown of larger molecules by cells) by humans and other animals that feed on plants. Plants are able to synthesize glucose, and the excess glucose, beyond the plant’s immediate energy needs, is stored as starch in different plant parts, including roots and seeds. The starch in the seeds provides food for the embryo as it germinates and can also act as a source of food for humans and animals.

    Lipids include a diverse group of compounds such as fats, oils, waxes, phospholipids, and steroids that are largely nonpolar in nature. Nonpolar molecules are hydrophobic (“water fearing”), or insoluble in water. These lipids have important roles in energy storage, as well as in the building of cell membranes throughout the body.

    Proteins are one of the most abundant organic molecules in living systems and have the most diverse range of functions of all macromolecules. Proteins may be structural, regulatory, contractile, or protective; they may serve in transport, storage, or membranes; or they may be toxins or enzymes. Each cell in a living system may contain thousands of proteins, each with a unique function. Their structures, like their functions, vary greatly.

    Enzymes, which are produced by living cells, speed up biochemical reactions (like digestion) and are usually complex proteins. Each enzyme has a specific shape or formation based on its use. The enzyme may help in breakdown, rearrangement, or synthesis reactions.

    Proteins have different shapes and molecular weights. Protein shape is critical to its function, and many different types of chemical bonds maintain this shape. Changes in temperature, pH, and exposure to chemicals may cause a protein to denature. This is a permanent change in the shape of the protein, leading to loss of function. All proteins are made up of different arrangements of the same 20 types of amino acids. These amino acids are the units that make up proteins. Ten of these are considered essential amino acids in humans because the human body cannot produce them and they are obtained from the diet. The sequence and the number of amino acids ultimately determine the protein's shape, size, and function.

    Nucleic acids are the most important macromolecules for the continuity of life. They carry the genetic blueprint of a cell and carry instructions for the functioning of the cell. The two main types of nucleic acids are deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). DNA is the genetic material found in all living organisms, ranging from single-celled bacteria to multicellular mammals. DNA controls all of the cellular activities by turning the genes “on” or “off.” The other type of nucleic acid, RNA, is mostly involved in protein synthesis. DNA has a double-helix structure (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\))

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Native DNA is an antiparallel double helix. The phosphate backbone (indicated by the curvy lines) is on the outside, and the bases are on the inside. Each base from one strand interacts via hydrogen bonding with a base from the opposing strand. (credit: Jerome Walker/Dennis Myts)