Proteins are organic compounds composed mainly of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Like most of the other biological macromolecules, proteins are formed from the linkage of monomers called amino acids. Hair and horns, as shown in Figure 3-7a, are made mostly of proteins, as are skin, muscles and many biological catalysts (enzymes).

Amino Acids

There are 20 different amino acids, and all share a basic structure. As Figure 3-7b shows, each amino acid contains a central carbon atom covalently bonded to four other atoms or functional groups. A single hydrogen atom, highlighted in blue in the illustration, bonds at one site. A carboxyl group, —COOH, highlighted in green, bonds at a second site. An amino group, —NH2, highlighted in yellow, bonds at a third site. A side chain called the R group, highlighted in red, bonds at the fourth site.

The main difference among the different amino acids is in their R groups. The R group can be complex or it can be simple, such as the CH3 group shown in the amino acid alanine in Figure 3-7b. The differences among the amino acid R groups gives different proteins very different shapes. The different shapes allow proteins to carry out many different activities in living things. Amino acids are commonly shown in a simplified way such as balls, as shown in Figure 3-7c.

Dipeptides and Polypeptides

Figure 3-8a shows how two amino acids bond to form a dipeptide (die-PEP-TIED). In this condensation reaction, the two amino acids form a covalent bond, called a peptide bond (shaded in blue in Figure 3-8a) and release a water molecule.

Amino acids often form very long chains called polypeptides (PAHL-i-PEP-TIEDZ). Proteins are composed of one or more polypep-tides. Some proteins are very large molecules, containing hundreds of amino acids. Often, these long proteins are bent and folded upon themselves as a result of interactions—such as hydrogen bonding—between individual amino acids. Protein shape can also be influenced by conditions such as temperature and the type of solvent in which a protein is dissolved. For example, cooking an egg changes the shape of proteins in the egg white. The firm, opaque result is very different from the initial clear, runny material.


Enzymes—RNA or protein molecules that act as biological catalysts—are essential for the functioning of any cell. Many enzymes are proteins. Figure 3-9 shows an induced fit model of enzyme action.

Enzyme reactions depend on a physical fit between the enzyme molecule and its specific substrate, the reactant being catalyzed. Notice that the enzyme has folds, or an active site, with a shape that allows the substrate to fit into the active site. An enzyme acts only on a specific substrate because only that substrate fits into its active site. The linkage of the enzyme and substrate causes a slight change in the enzyme's shape. The change in the enzyme's shape weakens some chemical bonds in the substrate, which is one way that enzymes reduce activation energy, the energy needed to start the reaction. After the reaction, the enzyme releases the products. Like any catalyst, the enzyme itself is unchanged, so it can be used many times.

An enzyme may not work if its environment is changed. For example, change in temperature or pH can cause a change in the shape of the enzyme or the substrate. If such a change happens, the reaction that the enzyme would have catalyzed cannot occur.




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