Protein Structure | Science at Scitable

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Proteins are the end products of the decoding process that starts with the information in cellular DNA. As workhorses of the cell, proteins compose structural and motor elements in the cell, and they serve as the catalysts for virtually every biochemical reaction that occurs in living things. This incredible array of functions derives from a startlingly simple code that specifies a hugely diverse set of structures.

In fact, each gene in cellular DNA contains the code for a unique protein structure. Not only are these proteins assembled with different amino acid sequences, but they also are held together by different bonds and folded into a variety of three-dimensional structures. The folded shape, or conformation, depends directly on the linear amino acid sequence of the protein.

What Are Proteins Made Of?

The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, which are small organic molecules that consist of an alpha (central) carbon atom linked to an amino group, a carboxyl group, a hydrogen atom, and a variable component called a side chain (see below). Within a protein, multiple amino acids are linked together by peptide bonds, thereby forming a long chain. Peptide bonds are formed by a biochemical reaction that extracts a water molecule as it joins the amino group of one amino acid to the carboxyl group of a neighboring amino acid. The linear sequence of amino acids within a protein is considered the primary structure of the protein. Proteins are built from a set of only twenty amino acids, each of which has a unique side chain.
The side chains of amino acids have different chemistries. The largest group of amino acids have nonpolar side chains. Several other amino acids have side chains with positive or negative charges, while others have polar but uncharged side chains. The chemistry of amino acid side chains is critical to protein structure because these side chains can bond with one another to hold a length of protein in a certain shape or conformation. Charged amino acid side chains can form ionic bonds, and polar amino acids are capable of forming hydrogen bonds. Hydrophobic side chains interact with each other via weak van der Waals interactions. The vast majority of bonds formed by these side chains are noncovalent. In fact, cysteines are the only amino acids capable of forming covalent bonds, which they do with their particular side chains.

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