What’s in a Name: The Long Chain of Amino Acids

When we think of our body, we think of bones, muscles, and organs. However, a significant portion of what makes us what we are lies on the smallest level possible – the molecular level.

One of the crucial molecules that make up our body is the amino acid. They form the building blocks of the proteins in our body and play a crucial role in cellular processes such as muscle growth and hormone regulation.

The Basics of Amino Acids

Amino acids are organic compounds that contain an amino (-NH2) and carboxyl (-COOH) group. They differ from each other in the side chain (-R) attached to their central carbon atom (Cα). There are 20 standard amino acids that vary in their physical and chemical properties. Some are acidic, some are basic, and some are hydrophobic or hydrophilic.

The standard set of amino acids can be further classified into different categories based on the chemical nature of their side chains. These categories are:

  • Nonpolar, aliphatic amino acids: Glycine, Alanine, Valine, Leucine, Isoleucine, and Methionine
  • Aromatic amino acids: Phenylalanine, Tryptophan, and Tyrosine
  • Polar, uncharged amino acids: Serine, Threonine, Cysteine, Asparagine, and Glutamine
  • Positively charged, polar amino acids: Lysine, Arginine, and Histidine
  • Negatively charged, polar amino acids: Aspartic acid and Glutamic acid

What are Peptides and Proteins?

Amino acids are linked together through peptide bonds to form proteins. A peptide is a short chain of amino acids, whereas a protein is a long chain of amino acids. The term “protein” comes from the Greek word “proteios,” which means “of the first rank.” Proteins are incredibly diverse and perform a wide range of functions in the body, including:

  • Enzymes: catalyze chemical reactions in the body
  • Structural: provide structural support to cells and tissues
  • Transport: transport molecules across tissue and organ boundaries
  • Hormonal: regulate cellular activity and physiological processes

The primary structure of a protein is the linear sequence of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. The secondary structure refers to the folding of the polypeptide chain into α-helices or β-sheets that are stabilized by hydrogen bonds. The tertiary structure is the three-dimensional arrangement of secondary structural elements and linker sequences, whereas the quaternary structure is the assembly of multiple polypeptide chains into functional protein complexes.

Protein Synthesis

Proteins can be synthesized by two mechanisms: transcription and translation. DNA serves as the template for transcription while ribosomes catalyze the translation of mRNA sequences into amino acid sequences. After translation, different mechanisms can modify and regulate the activity of these proteins, such as post-translational modifications or protein-protein interactions.

Protein synthesis is highly regulated by the cell and can be influenced by various factors. Some factors that can impact protein synthesis include the availability of amino acids and energy, hormonal signals, or cellular stress.

Consequences of Protein Misfolding

The folding of proteins is tightly regulated, and any deviation from the correct conformation can lead to the formation of misfolded proteins. Misfolded proteins can cause a wide range of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cystic fibrosis.

  • Alzheimer’s Disease: Caused by the buildup of amyloid beta protein in the brain, which results in the formation of clumps called amyloid plaques.
  • Parkinson’s Disease: Results from the accumulation of misfolded alpha-synuclein protein in the brain, which leads to the death of dopamine-producing neurons.
  • Cystic Fibrosis: Caused by mutations in the gene encoding the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) protein, which leads to the production and accumulation of misfolded CFTR protein in the lungs and pancreas.


Proteins are incredibly diverse and perform an essential function in the body. Amino acids serve as the building blocks of proteins, and the sequence of amino acids determines the functionality and properties of the protein. Protein synthesis is a highly regulated process that ensures the correct sequence of amino acids is incorporated into the proteins. Misfolded proteins can lead to a wide range of diseases and conditions.


  • Q: What is a long chain of amino acids called?
    A: A long chain of amino acids is called a protein.
  • Q: What are amino acids used for in the body?
    A: Amino acids are used to build proteins, which are important components of cells, tissues, and organs.
  • Q: How many types of amino acids are there?
    A: There are 20 standard amino acids that differ in their side chains.
  • Q: What is the primary structure of a protein?
    A: The primary structure of a protein is the linear sequence of amino acids linked together by peptide bonds.


1. Berg, J.M., Tymoczko, J.L., Gatto, G.J., Jr., & Stryer, L. (2015). Biochemistry. 8th edition. W. H. Freeman and Company.
2. Lodish, H., Berk, A., Zipursky, S.L., et al. (2000). Molecular Cell Biology. 4th edition. W. H. Freeman.
3. Tang, Y.T., Hu, T., Arterburn, M., et al. (2015). Journal of Translational Medicine, 13, 258.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *