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1.12: Proteins

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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You may have been told proteins are good for you. Do these look good to you?

Proteins as food. To you, these may not look appetizing (or they might), but they do provide a nice supply of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Proteins have many important roles, from transporting, signaling, receiving, and catalyzing to storing, defending, and allowing for movement. Where do you get the amino acids needed so your cells can make their own proteins? If you cannot make it, you must eat it.


A protein is an organic compound made up of small molecules called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids commonly found in the proteins of living organisms. Small proteins may contain just a few hundred amino acids, whereas large proteins may contain thousands of amino acids. The largest known proteins are the titins, found in muscle, which are composed from almost 27,000 amino acids.

General Structure of Amino Acids. This model shows the general structure of all amino acids. Only the side chain, R, varies from one amino acid to another. For example, in the amino acid glycine, the side chain is simply hydrogen (H). In glutamic acid, in contrast, the side chain is CH2CH2COOH. Variable side chains give amino acids acids different chemical properties. The order of amino acids, together with the properties of the amino acids, determines the shape of the protein, and the shape of the protein determines the function of the protein. KEY: H = hydrogen, N = nitrogen, C = carbon, O = oxygen, R = variable side chain

Protein Structure

When amino acids bind together, they form a long chain called a polypeptide. A protein consists of one or more polypeptide chains. A protein may have up to four levels of structure. The lowest level, a protein’s primary structure, is its sequence of amino acids. Higher levels of protein structure are described in Figure below. The complex structures of different proteins give them unique properties, which they need to carry out their various jobs in living organisms. You can learn more about protein structure by watching the animation at the following link: http://www.stolaf.edu/people/giannini/flashanimat/proteins/protein%20structure.swf.

Protein Structure. The structure of a protein starts with its sequence of amino acids. What determines the secondary structure of a protein? What are two types of secondary protein structure?

Functions of Proteins

Proteins play many important roles in living things. Some proteins help cells keep their shape, and some make up muscle tissues. Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions in cells. Other proteins are antibodies, which bind to foreign substances such as bacteria and target them for destruction. Still other proteins carry messages or materials. For example, human red blood cells contain a protein called hemoglobin, which binds with oxygen. Hemoglobin allows the blood to carry oxygen from the lungs to cells throughout the body. A model of the hemoglobin molecule is shown in Figure below.

Hemoglobin Molecule. This model represents the protein hemoglobin. The red parts of the molecule contain iron. The iron binds with oxygen molecules.

A short video describing protein function can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T500B5yTy58&feature=related (4:02).

As you view Protein Functions in the Body, focus on these concepts:

  1. the amount of protein in each cell,
  2. the roles of different types of proteins.

Proteins and Diet

Proteins in the diet are necessary for life. Dietary proteins are broken down into their component amino acids when food is digested. Cells can then use the components to build new proteins. Humans are able to synthesize all but eight of the twenty common amino acids. These eight amino acids, called essential amino acids, must be consumed in foods. Like dietary carbohydrates and lipids, dietary proteins can also be broken down to provide cells with energy.


  • Proteins are organic compounds made up of amino acids.
  • A protein may have up to four levels of structure. The complex structures of different proteins give them unique properties.
  • Enzymes are proteins that speed up biochemical reactions in cells. Antibodies are proteins that target pathogens for destruction.


Use these resources to answer the questions that follow.

  1. Give 3 examples of proteins.
  2. What determines the primary structure of a protein?
  3. What determines the protein's function?
  4. How can a protein's conformation be disrupted?
  1. How many different proteins are in a cell?
  2. What function do receptor proteins and structural proteins have in nerve cells?
  3. What is the information used to make an individual protein?
  4. What is the part of the cell where proteins are made?
  • http://www.hippocampus.org/Biology \begin{align*}\rightarrow\end{align*} Biology for AP* \begin{align*}\rightarrow\end{align*} Search: Structure and Function of Proteins
  1. How do amino acids link together?
  2. What is a polypeptide?
  3. What does "secondary structure" refer to? Describe examples of secondary structure.
  4. Describe the hemoglobin protein.
  5. What is the main difference between active sites and binding sites?
  6. What is the main role of fibrous proteins?


1. What determines the primary structure of a protein?

2. State two functions of proteins.

3. Proteins are made out of ____________.

4. Describe the role of hemoglobin.

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amino acid Small molecule that is a building block (monomer) of proteins.
antibody Large, Y-shaped protein produced by B cells that recognizes and binds to antigens in a humoral immune response.
essential amino acid Amino acid that must be consumed in foods.
hemoglobin Protein of red blood cells that binds and carries oxygen; allows oxygen to be transported in the blood.
polypeptide Chain of amino acids that alone or with other such chains makes up a protein.
protein Organic compound made up of amino acids.
enzyme Biological catalyst; protein that accelerates a biochemical reaction.

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Date Created:
Feb 24, 2012
Last Modified:
Oct 24, 2016
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