1-2-6. Organic Compounds Essential to Human Functioning
Organic compounds typically consist of groups of carbon atoms covalently bonded to hydrogen, usually oxygen, and often other elements as well. Created by living things, they are found throughout the world, in soils and seas, commercial products, and every cell of the human body. The four types most important to human structure and function are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleotides. Before exploring these compounds, you need to first understand the chemistry of carbon.
The Chemistry of Carbon
What makes organic compounds ubiquitous is the chemistry of their carbon core. Recall that carbon atoms have four electrons in their valence shell, and that the octet rule dictates that atoms tend to react in such a way as to complete their valence shell with eight electrons. Carbon atoms do not complete their valence shells by donating or accepting four electrons. Instead, they readily share electrons via covalent bonds.
Commonly, carbon atoms share with other carbon atoms, often forming a long carbon chain referred to as a carbon skeleton. When they do share, however, they do not share all their electrons exclusively with each other. Rather, carbon atoms tend to share electrons with a variety of other elements, one of which is always hydrogen. Carbon and hydrogen groupings are called hydrocarbons. If you study the figures of organic compounds in the remainder of this chapter, you will see several with chains of hydrocarbons in one region of the compound.
Many combinations are possible to fill carbon’s four “vacancies.” Carbon may share electrons with oxygen or nitrogen or other atoms in a particular region of an organic compound. Moreover, the atoms to which carbon atoms bond may also be part of a functional group. A
Table 1. Functional Groups Important in Human Physiology
Carbon’s affinity for covalent bonding means that many distinct and relatively stable organic molecules nevertheless readily form larger, more complex molecules. Any large molecule is referred to as
Monomers form polymers by engaging in dehydration synthesis (see Section 1-2-5, Figure 1). As was noted earlier, this reaction results in the release of a molecule of water. Each monomer contributes: One gives up a hydrogen atom and the other gives up a hydroxyl group. Polymers are split into monomers by hydrolysis (-lysis = “rupture”). The bonds between their monomers are broken, via the donation of a molecule of water, which contributes a hydrogen atom to one monomer and a hydroxyl group to the other.
The term carbohydrate means “hydrated carbon.” Recall that the root hydro- indicates water. A
Carbohydrates are referred to as saccharides, a word meaning “sugars.” Three forms are important in the body. Monosaccharides are the monomers of carbohydrates. Disaccharides (di- = “two”) are made up of two monomers.
Five Important Monosaccharides
Three Important Disaccharides
Watch this video to observe the formation of a disaccharide. What happens when water encounters a glycosidic bond?
Polysaccharides can contain a few to a thousand or more monosaccharides. Three are important to the body (Figure 3):
Three Important Polysaccharides
Functions of Carbohydrates
The body obtains carbohydrates from plant-based foods. Grains, fruits, and legumes and other vegetables provide most of the carbohydrate in the human diet, although lactose is found in dairy products.
Although most body cells can break down other organic compounds for fuel, all body cells can use glucose. Moreover, nerve cells (neurons) in the brain, spinal cord, and through the peripheral nervous system, as well as red blood cells, can use only glucose for fuel. In the breakdown of glucose for energy, molecules of adenosine triphosphate, better known as ATP, are produced.
C6H12O6 + 6 O2 → 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + ATP
In addition to being a critical fuel source, carbohydrates are present in very small amounts in cells’ structure. For instance, some carbohydrate molecules bind with proteins to produce glycoproteins, and others combine with lipids to produce glycolipids, both of which are found in the membrane that encloses the contents of body cells.
Triglycerides form via dehydration synthesis. Glycerol gives up hydrogen atoms from its hydroxyl groups at each bond, and the carboxyl group on each fatty acid chain gives up a hydroxyl group. A total of three water molecules are thereby released.
Fatty acid chains that have no double carbon bonds anywhere along their length and therefore contain the maximum number of hydrogen atoms are called saturated fatty acids. These straight, rigid chains pack tightly together and are solid or semi-solid at room temperature (Figure 5a). Butter and lard are examples, as is the fat found on a steak or in your own body. In contrast, fatty acids with one double carbon bond are kinked at that bond (Figure 5b). These monounsaturated fatty acids are therefore unable to pack together tightly, and are liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fatty acids contain two or more double carbon bonds, and are also liquid at room temperature. Plant oils such as olive oil typically contain both mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Fatty Acid Shapes
Whereas a diet high in saturated fatty acids increases the risk of heart disease, a diet high in unsaturated fatty acids is thought to reduce the risk. This is especially true for the omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids found in cold-water fish such as salmon. These fatty acids have their first double carbon bond at the third hydrocarbon from the methyl group (referred to as the omega end of the molecule).
Finally, trans fatty acids found in some processed foods, including some stick and tub margarines, are thought to be even more harmful to the heart and blood vessels than saturated fatty acids. Trans fats are created from unsaturated fatty acids (such as corn oil) when chemically treated to produce partially hydrogenated fats.
As a group, triglycerides are a major fuel source for the body. When you are resting or asleep, a majority of the energy used to keep you alive is derived from triglycerides stored in your fat (adipose) tissues. Triglycerides also fuel long, slow physical activity such as gardening or hiking, and contribute a modest percentage of energy for vigorous physical activity. Dietary fat also assists the absorption and transport of the nonpolar fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Additionally, stored body fat protects and cushions the body’s bones and internal organs, and acts as insulation to retain body heat.
Fatty acids are also components of glycolipids, which are sugar-fat compounds found in the cell membrane. Lipoproteins are compounds in which the hydrophobic triglycerides are packaged in protein envelopes for transport in body fluids.
As its name suggests, a
Like a hormone, a
You might associate proteins with muscle tissue, but in fact, proteins are critical components of all tissues and organs. A
Microstructure of Proteins
Proteins are polymers made up of nitrogen-containing monomers called amino acids. An
Structure of an Amino Acid
Notice that all amino acids contain both an acid (the carboxyl group) and a base (the amino group) (amine = “nitrogen-containing”). For this reason, they make excellent buffers, helping the body regulate acid–base balance. What distinguishes the 20 amino acids from one another is their variable group, which is referred to as a side chain or an R-group. This group can vary in size and can be polar or nonpolar, giving each amino acid its unique characteristics. For example, the side chains of two amino acids—cysteine and methionine—contain sulfur. Sulfur does not readily participate in hydrogen bonds, whereas all other amino acids do. This variation influences the way that proteins containing cysteine and methionine are assembled.
Amino acids join via dehydration synthesis to form protein polymers (Figure 8). The unique bond holding amino acids together is called a peptide bond. A
The body is able to synthesize most of the amino acids from components of other molecules; however, nine cannot be synthesized and have to be consumed in the diet. These are known as the essential amino acids.
Free amino acids available for protein construction are said to reside in the amino acid pool within cells. Structures within cells use these amino acids when assembling proteins. If a particular essential amino acid is not available in sufficient quantities in the amino acid pool, however, synthesis of proteins containing it can slow or even cease.
Shape of Proteins
Just as a fork cannot be used to eat soup and a spoon cannot be used to spear meat, a protein’s shape is essential to its function. A protein’s shape is determined, most fundamentally, by the sequence of amino acids of which it is made (Figure 9a). The sequence is called the primary structure of the protein.
The Shape of Proteins
Although some polypeptides exist as linear chains, most are twisted or folded into more complex secondary structures that form when bonding occurs between amino acids with different properties at different regions of the polypeptide. The most common secondary structure is a spiral called an alpha-helix. If you were to take a length of string and simply twist it into a spiral, it would not hold the shape. Similarly, a strand of amino acids could not maintain a stable spiral shape without the help of hydrogen bonds, which create bridges between different regions of the same strand (see Figure 9b). Less commonly, a polypeptide chain can form a beta-pleated sheet, in which hydrogen bonds form bridges between different regions of a single polypeptide that has folded back upon itself, or between two or more adjacent polypeptide chains.
The secondary structure of proteins further folds into a compact three-dimensional shape, referred to as the protein’s tertiary structure (see Figure 9c). In this configuration, amino acids that had been very distant in the primary chain can be brought quite close via hydrogen bonds or, in proteins containing cysteine, via disulfide bonds. A
When they are exposed to extreme heat, acids, bases, and certain other substances, proteins will denature.
The contribution of the shape of a protein to its function can hardly be exaggerated. For example, the long, slender shape of protein strands that make up muscle tissue is essential to their ability to contract (shorten) and relax (lengthen). As another example, bones contain long threads of a protein called collagen that acts as scaffolding upon which bone minerals are deposited. These elongated proteins, called fibrous proteins, are strong and durable and typically hydrophobic.
In contrast, globular proteins are globes or spheres that tend to be highly reactive and are hydrophilic. The hemoglobin proteins packed into red blood cells are an example (see Figure 9d); however, globular proteins are abundant throughout the body, playing critical roles in most body functions. Enzymes, introduced earlier as protein catalysts, are examples of this. The next section takes a closer look at the action of enzymes.
Proteins Function as Enzymes
If you were trying to type a paper, and every time you hit a key on your laptop there was a delay of six or seven minutes before you got a response, you would probably get a new laptop. In a similar way, without enzymes to catalyze chemical reactions, the human body would be nonfunctional. It functions only because enzymes function.
Enzymatic reactions—chemical reactions catalyzed by enzymes—begin when substrates bind to the enzyme. A
Steps in an Enzymatic Reaction
Binding of a substrate produces an enzyme–substrate complex. It is likely that enzymes speed up chemical reactions in part because the enzyme–substrate complex undergoes a set of temporary and reversible changes that cause the substrates to be oriented toward each other in an optimal position to facilitate their interaction. This promotes increased reaction speed. The enzyme then releases the product(s), and resumes its original shape. The enzyme is then free to engage in the process again, and will do so as long as substrate remains.
Other Functions of Proteins
Advertisements for protein bars, powders, and shakes all say that protein is important in building, repairing, and maintaining muscle tissue, but the truth is that proteins contribute to all body tissues, from the skin to the brain cells. Also, certain proteins act as hormones, chemical messengers that help regulate body functions, For example, growth hormone is important for skeletal growth, among other roles.
As was noted earlier, the basic and acidic components enable proteins to function as buffers in maintaining acid–base balance, but they also help regulate fluid–electrolyte balance. Proteins attract fluid, and a healthy concentration of proteins in the blood, the cells, and the spaces between cells helps ensure a balance of fluids in these various “compartments.” Moreover, proteins in the cell membrane help to transport electrolytes in and out of the cell, keeping these ions in a healthy balance. Like lipids, proteins can bind with carbohydrates. They can thereby produce glycoproteins or proteoglycans, both of which have many functions in the body.
The body can use proteins for energy when carbohydrate and fat intake is inadequate, and stores of glycogen and adipose tissue become depleted. However, since there is no storage site for protein except functional tissues, using protein for energy causes tissue breakdown, and results in body wasting.
The fourth type of organic compound important to human structure and function are the nucleotides (Figure 11). A
Nucleotides can be assembled into nucleic acids (DNA or RNA) or the energy compound adenosine triphosphate.
The nucleic acids differ in their type of pentose sugar.
The nitrogen-containing bases adenine and guanine are classified as purines. A
Bonds formed by dehydration synthesis between the pentose sugar of one nucleic acid monomer and the phosphate group of another form a “backbone,” from which the components’ nitrogen-containing bases protrude. In DNA, two such backbones attach at their protruding bases via hydrogen bonds. These twist to form a shape known as a double helix (Figure 12). The sequence of nitrogen-containing bases within a strand of DNA form the genes that act as a molecular code instructing cells in the assembly of amino acids into proteins. Humans have almost 22,000 genes in their DNA, locked up in the 46 chromosomes inside the nucleus of each cell (except red blood cells which lose their nuclei during development). These genes carry the genetic code to build one’s body, and are unique for each individual except identical twins.
In contrast, RNA consists of a single strand of sugar-phosphate backbone studded with bases. Messenger RNA (mRNA) is created during protein synthesis to carry the genetic instructions from the DNA to the cell’s protein manufacturing plants in the cytoplasm, the ribosomes.
The nucleotide adenosine triphosphate (ATP), is composed of a ribose sugar, an adenine base, and three phosphate groups (Figure 13). ATP is classified as a high energy compound because the two covalent bonds linking its three phosphates store a significant amount of potential energy. In the body, the energy released from these high energy bonds helps fuel the body’s activities, from muscle contraction to the transport of substances in and out of cells to anabolic chemical reactions.
Structure of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)
When a phosphate group is cleaved from ATP, the products are adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and inorganic phosphate (Pi). This hydrolysis reaction can be written:
ATP + H2O → ADP + Pi + energy
Removal of a second phosphate leaves adenosine monophosphate (AMP) and two phosphate groups. Again, these reactions also liberate the energy that had been stored in the phosphate-phosphate bonds. They are reversible, too, as when ADP undergoes phosphorylation.
Cells can also transfer a phosphate group from ATP to another organic compound. For example, when glucose first enters a cell, a phosphate group is transferred from ATP, forming glucose phosphate (C6H12O6—P) and ADP. Once glucose is phosphorylated in this way, it can be stored as glycogen or metabolized for immediate energy.
Organic compounds essential to human functioning include carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleotides. These compounds are said to be organic because they contain both carbon and hydrogen. Carbon atoms in organic compounds readily share electrons with hydrogen and other atoms, usually oxygen, and sometimes nitrogen. Carbon atoms also may bond with one or more functional groups such as carboxyls, hydroxyls, aminos, or phosphates. Monomers are single units of organic compounds. They bond by dehydration synthesis to form polymers, which can in turn be broken by hydrolysis.
Carbohydrate compounds provide essential body fuel. Their structural forms include monosaccharides such as glucose, disaccharides such as lactose, and polysaccharides, including starches (polymers of glucose), glycogen (the storage form of glucose), and fiber. All body cells can use glucose for fuel. It is converted via an oxidation-reduction reaction to ATP.
Lipids are hydrophobic compounds that provide body fuel and are important components of many biological compounds. Triglycerides are the most abundant lipid in the body, and are composed of a glycerol backbone attached to three fatty acid chains. Phospholipids are compounds composed of a diglyceride with a phosphate group attached at the molecule’s head. The result is a molecule with polar and nonpolar regions. Steroids are lipids formed of four hydrocarbon rings. The most important is cholesterol. Prostaglandins are signaling molecules derived from unsaturated fatty acids.
Proteins are critical components of all body tissues. They are made up of monomers called amino acids, which contain nitrogen, joined by peptide bonds. Protein shape is critical to its function. Most body proteins are globular. An example is enzymes, which catalyze chemical reactions.
Nucleotides are compounds with three building blocks: one or more phosphate groups, a pentose sugar, and a nitrogen-containing base. DNA and RNA are nucleic acids that function in protein synthesis. ATP is the body’s fundamental molecule of energy transfer. Removal or addition of phosphates releases or invests energy.
Interactive Link Questions
Watch this video to observe the formation of a disaccharide. What happens when water encounters a glycosidic bond?
The water hydrolyses, or breaks, the glycosidic bond, forming two monosaccharides.
C6H12O6 is the chemical formula for a ________.
What organic compound do brain cells primarily rely on for fuel?
Which of the following is a functional group that is part of a building block of proteins?
A pentose sugar is a part of the monomer used to build which type of macromolecule?
A phospholipid ________.
In DNA, nucleotide bonding forms a compound with a characteristic shape known as a(n) ________.
The ability of an enzyme’s active sites to bind only substrates of compatible shape and charge is known as ________.
Critical Thinking Questions
If the disaccharide maltose is formed from two glucose monosaccharides, which are hexose sugars, how many atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen does maltose contain and why?
Maltose contains 12 atoms of carbon, but only 22 atoms of hydrogen and 11 atoms of oxygen, because a molecule of water is removed during its formation via dehydration synthesis.
Once dietary fats are digested and absorbed, why can they not be released directly into the bloodstream?
All lipids are hydrophobic and unable to dissolve in the watery environment of blood. They are packaged into lipoproteins, whose outer protein envelope enables them to transport fats in the bloodstream.
adenosine triphosphate (ATP)
deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)
ribonucleic acid (RNA)