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, polymers of amino acids, arranged in a linear sequence.
Amino acids are the monomers that make up proteins. Each amino acid has the same fundamental structure, which consists of a central carbon atom, also known as the alpha (α) carbon, bonded to an amino group (NH2), a carboxyl group (COOH), and to a hydrogen atom. Every amino acid also has another atom or group of atoms bonded to the central atom known as the R group (Figure 1).
The name “amino acid” is derived from the fact that they contain both amino group and carboxyl-acid-group in their basic structure. As mentioned, there are 20 amino acids present in proteins. Ten of these are considered essential amino acids in humans because the human body cannot produce them and they are obtained from the diet.
For each amino acid, the R group (or side chain) is different (Figure 2).
The chemical nature of the side chain determines the nature of the amino acid (that is, whether it is acidic, basic, polar, or nonpolar). For example, the amino acid glycine has a hydrogen atom as the R group. Amino acids such as valine, methionine, and alanine are nonpolar or hydrophobic in nature, while amino acids such as serine, threonine, and cysteine are polar and have hydrophilic side chains. The side chains of lysine and arginine are positively charged, and therefore these amino acids are also known as basic amino acids. Proline has an R group that is linked to the amino group, forming a ring-like structure. Proline is an exception to the standard structure of an animo acid since its amino group is not separate from the side chain (Figure 2).
Amino acids are represented by a single upper case letter or a three-letter abbreviation. For example, valine is known by the letter V or the three-letter symbol val. Just as some fatty acids are essential to a diet, some amino acids are necessary as well. They are known as essential amino acids, and in humans they include isoleucine, leucine, and cysteine. Essential amino acids refer to those necessary for construction of proteins in the body, although not produced by the body; which amino acids are essential varies from organism to organism.
The sequence and the number of amino acids ultimately determine the 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 the incoming amino acid combine, releasing a molecule of water. The resulting bond is the peptide bond (Figure 3).
The products formed by such linkages are called peptides. As more amino acids join to this growing chain, the resulting chain is known as a polypeptide. 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, often have bound non-peptide prosthetic groups, have a distinct shape, and have a unique function. After protein synthesis (translation), most proteins are modified. These are known as post-translational modifications. They may undergo cleavage, phosphorylation, or may require the addition of other chemical groups. Only after these modifications is the protein completely functional.
The Evolutionary Significance of Cytochrome c
Cytochrome c is an important component of the electron transport chain, a part of cellular respiration, and it is normally found in the cellular organelle, the mitochondrion. This protein has a heme prosthetic group, and the central ion of the heme gets alternately reduced and oxidized during electron transfer. Because this essential 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 cytochrome c amino acid sequence homology among different species; in other words, evolutionary kinship can be assessed by measuring the similarities or differences among various species’ DNA or protein sequences.
Scientists have determined that human cytochrome c contains 104 amino acids. For each cytochrome c molecule from different organisms that has been sequenced to date, 37 of these amino acids appear in the same position in all samples of cytochrome c. This indicates that there may have been a common ancestor. On comparing the human and chimpanzee protein sequences, no sequence difference was found. When human and rhesus monkey sequences were compared, the single difference found was in one amino acid. In another comparison, human to yeast sequencing shows a difference in the 44th position.