3.1. Biological macromolecules. Introduction

Within this section I will explain the four main types of biological macromolecules: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins and nucleic acids. These macromolecules are the basic constituents of cell structure, that in combining form most of the dry weight of a typical cell. They carry out a wide range of functions in cells. These macromolecules are organic molecules, thus their main component is carbon. Hydrogen (H), oxygen (O) and nitrogen (N) and other minor elements are also part of their structure.
The two fundamental reactions that control the synthesis of biological macromolecules are the following:

    ▣      Dehydration synthesis
The basic blocks of most macromolecules are sub-units known as monomers. These monomers are combined through covalent bonds to form larger molecules (polymers). To do this they release water molecules as byproducts, this mechanism is called dehydration synthesis, which means “to join by losing water”. During these reactions, the hydrogen (H+) of one of the monomers is combined with the hydroxyl group (OH-) of other monomer, releasing a water molecule. At the same time, the monomers share electrons and are joined by covalent bonds.
Different types of monomers or even just a single monomer is combined to form a diverse range of polymers. Thus, for instance, glucose monomers are the components of several different substances such as cellulose, glycogen or starch.
Dehydration reaction

    ▣      Hydrolysis
Hydrolysis (“to separate water”) is a reaction in which water molecules are used to break down the polymers into their basic monomers. In these reactions the polymers are divided in two: one part acquires a hydrogen atom (H+) and the other a hydroxyl group (OH-); both elements (H+ and OH-) occur from the breakdown of a water molecule.
Hydrolysis reaction
Both in hydrolysis and dehydration reactions, enzymes (a specific type of proteins) can act to catalyse (accelerate in these two cases) these reactions.
Through hydrolysis and using particular digestive enzymes, our body breaks down the proteins, lipids and carbohydrates (macromolecules) that we eat. Once these ‘macro’ (i.e. larger) molecules are broken down into smaller molecules, the intestinal cells can absorb the nutrients that they contain. Thus, for instance, lipids are metabolised by lipases, proteins are broken down by the action of hydrochloric acid, peptidase or pepsin and finally carbohydrates are digested by enzymes like lactase, maltase or sucrase.
By breaking down all these molecules into a unit where cells can absorb them as their own ‘food’, these cells obtain the necessary energy to perform all their functions.

Sources: OpenStax College, Biology. OpenStax College. 30 May 2013.               

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