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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 proteins, each with a unique function. Their structures, like their functions, vary greatly. They are all, however, amino acid polymers arranged in a linear sequence.

Types and Functions of Proteins

Enzymes, which living cells produce, are catalysts in biochemical reactions (like digestion) and are usually complex or conjugated proteins. Each enzyme is specific for the substrate (a reactant that binds to an enzyme) upon which it acts. The enzyme may help in breakdown, rearrangement, or synthesis reactions. We call enzymes that break down their substrates catabolic enzymes. Those that build more complex molecules from their substrates are anabolic enzymes, and enzymes that affect the rate of reaction are catalytic enzymes. Note that all enzymes increase the reaction rate and, therefore, are organic catalysts. An example of an enzyme is salivary amylase, which hydrolyzes its substrate amylose, a component of starch.

Hormones are chemical-signaling molecules, usually small proteins or steroids, secreted by 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 helps regulate the blood glucose level. Table 1 lists the primary types and functions of proteins.

Protein Types and Functions
Type Examples Functions
Digestive Enzymes Amylase, lipase, pepsin, trypsin Help in food by catabolizing nutrients into monomeric units
Transport Hemoglobin, albumin Carry substances in the blood or lymph throughout the body
Structural Actin, tubulin, keratin Construct different structures, like the cytoskeleton
Hormones Insulin, thyroxine Coordinate different body systems’ activity
Defense Immunoglobulins Protect the body from foreign pathogens
Contractile Actin, myosin Effect muscle contraction
Storage Legume storage proteins, egg white (albumin) Provide nourishment in early embryo development and the seedling
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, located in our skin, is a fibrous protein. Protein shape is critical to its function, and many different types of chemical bonds maintain this shape. Changes in temperature, pH, and exposure to chemicals may lead to permanent changes in the protein’s shape, leading to loss of function, or denaturation. Different arrangements of the same 20 types of amino acids comprise all proteins. Two rare new amino acids were discovered recently (selenocystein and pirrolysine), and additional new discoveries may be added to the list.

Denaturation and Protein Folding

Each protein has its own unique sequence and shape that chemical interactions hold together. If the protein is subject to changes in temperature, pH, or exposure to chemicals, the protein structure may change, losing its shape without losing its primary sequence in what scientists call denaturation. Denaturation is often reversible because the polypeptide’s primary structure is conserved in the process if the denaturing agent is removed, allowing the protein to resume its function. Sometimes denaturation is irreversible, leading to loss of function. One example of irreversible protein denaturation is frying an egg. The albumin protein in the liquid egg white denatures when placed in a hot pan. Not all proteins denature at high temperatures. For instance, bacteria that survive in hot springs have proteins that function at temperatures close to boiling. The stomach is also very acidic, has a low pH, and denatures proteins as part of the digestion process; however, the stomach’s digestive enzymes retain their activity under these conditions.

Protein folding is critical to its function. Scientists originally thought that the proteins themselves were responsible for the folding process. Only recently researchers discovered that often they receive assistance in the folding process from protein helpers, or chaperones (or chaperonins) that associate with the target protein during the folding process. They act by preventing polypeptide aggregation that comprise the complete protein structure, and they disassociate from the protein once the target protein is folded.

For an additional perspective on proteins, view this animation called “Biomolecules: The Proteins.”

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Chemistry for the Health Sciences by Harper College Chemistry Department is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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