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Chemistry LibreTexts

24.6 The Molecules of Life

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  • Proteins are biologically active polymers formed from amino acids linked together by amide bonds. All the amino acids in proteins are chiral compounds except glycine. The most common organic compounds found in nature are the carbohydrates, polyhydroxy aldehydes or polyhydroxy ketones in unbranched chains of three to eight carbons. They are classified according to the number of sugar, or saccharide, units, and they can be drawn as a chain in a Fischer projection or in a cyclic form called a Haworth projection. The two cyclic forms in a Haworth projection are called anomers. Many sugars contain at least one chiral center. With their carbonyl and hydroxyl functional groups, carbohydrates can undergo a variety of biochemically relevant reactions. Starch and cellulose differ only in the connectivity between glucose units. Starches can be branched or unbranched, but cellulose, the structural material of plants, is unbranched, and cannot be digested by humans. Lipids are insoluble in water. The simplest lipids, fatty acids, have a long hydrocarbon chain ending in a carboxylic acid functional group. Their physical properties depend on the number of double bonds in the chain. Prostaglandins, hormone-like substances, are formed from unsaturated fatty acids, and waxes are long-chain esters of saturated fatty acids. Triacylglycerols, which the body uses to store fats and oils, consist of glycerol esterified to three fatty acid molecules. Steroids, which include cholesterol and the steroid hormones, are characterized by three cyclohexane rings and one cyclopentane ring fused together. The basic structural units of DNA and RNA are the nucleic acids, whose structures are derived from nitrogen-containing cyclic compounds called pyrimidines and purines. These structures are linked to a sugar through a glycosidic bond, forming a nucleoside. Adding a phosphoric acid group produces a nucleotide. Nucleotides link to form a polymeric chain that is the backbone of DNA and RNA.

    Conceptual Problems

    1. What are the strengths and limitations of using a Haworth projection? of using a Fischer projection?
    2. Nutritionists will often state that a leafy salad contains no calories. Do you agree?
    3. Would you expect margarine, a polyunsaturated fat, to have a higher or lower melting point than butter, a saturated fat?

    Structure and Reactivity

    1. Propose a method for synthesizing the dipeptide alanylglycine (Ala-Gly), starting with the individual amino acids (Figure 5.16).
    2. Are all the naturally occurring amino acids chiral compounds? Do you expect proteins to contain both enantiomers of alanine and other amino acids? Explain your answer.
    3. The structures of cholesterol and testosterone were shown in this section. Identify the functional groups in each.
    4. The structures of glucose and purine were shown in this section. Identify the functional groups in each.


    1. Use a condensation reaction: