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 different proteins, each with a unique function. Their structures, like their functions, vary greatly. They are all, however, polymers of amino acids, arranged in a linear sequence.
The functions of proteins are very diverse because there are 20 different chemically distinct amino acids that form long chains, and the amino acids can be in any order. For example, proteins can function as enzymes or hormones. Enzymes, which are produced by living cells, are catalysts in biochemical reactions (like digestion) and are usually proteins. Each enzyme is specific for the substrate (a reactant that binds to an enzyme) upon which it acts. Enzymes can function to break molecular bonds, to rearrange bonds, or to form new bonds. An example of an enzyme is salivary amylase, which breaks down amylose, a component of starch.
Hormones are chemical signaling molecules, usually proteins or steroids, secreted by an endocrine gland or group of endocrine cells that act to control or regulate specific physiological processes, including growth, development, metabolism, and reproduction. For example, insulin is a protein hormone that maintains blood glucose levels.
Proteins have different shapes and molecular weights; some proteins are globular in shape whereas others are fibrous in nature. For example, hemoglobin is a globular protein, but collagen, found in our skin, is a fibrous protein. Protein shape is critical to its function. Changes in temperature, pH, and exposure to chemicals may lead to permanent changes in the shape of the protein, leading to a loss of function or denaturation (to be discussed in more detail later). All proteins are made up of different arrangements of the same 20 kinds of amino acids.
Amino acids are the monomers that make up proteins. Each amino acid has the same fundamental structure, which consists of a central carbon atom bonded to an amino group (), a carboxyl group (), and a hydrogen atom. Every amino acid also has another variable atom or group of atoms bonded to the central carbon atom known as the R group. The R group is the only difference in structure between the 20 amino acids; otherwise, the amino acids are identical (Figure 2.20).
The chemical nature of the R group determines the chemical nature of the amino acid within its protein (that is, whether it is acidic, basic, polar, or nonpolar).
The sequence and number of amino acids ultimately determine a protein’s shape, size, and function. Each amino acid is attached to another amino acid by a covalent bond, known as a peptide bond, which is formed by a dehydration reaction. The carboxyl group of one amino acid and the amino group of a second amino acid combine, releasing a water molecule. The resulting bond is the peptide bond.
The products formed by such a linkage are called polypeptides. While the terms polypeptide and protein are sometimes used interchangeably, a polypeptide is technically a polymer of amino acids, whereas the term protein is used for a polypeptide or polypeptides that have combined together, have a distinct shape, and have a unique function.
Evolution In Action
The Evolutionary Significance of Cytochrome c
Cytochrome c is an important component of the molecular machinery that harvests energy from glucose. Because this protein’s role in producing cellular energy is crucial, it has changed very little over millions of years. Protein sequencing has shown that there is a considerable amount of sequence similarity among cytochrome c molecules of different species; evolutionary relationships can be assessed by measuring the similarities or differences among various species’ protein sequences.
For example, scientists have determined that human cytochrome c contains 104 amino acids. For each cytochrome c molecule that has been sequenced to date from different organisms, 37 of these amino acids appear in the same position in each cytochrome c. This indicates that all of these organisms are descended from a common ancestor. On comparing the human and chimpanzee protein sequences, no sequence difference was found. When human and rhesus monkey sequences were compared, a single difference was found in one amino acid. In contrast, human-to-yeast comparisons show a difference in 44 amino acids, suggesting that humans and chimpanzees have a more recent common ancestor than humans and the rhesus monkey, or humans and yeast.