Amino acids are the monomers that comprise proteins. Each amino acid has the same fundamental structure, which consists of a central carbon atom, or 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. There are 20 common amino acids present in proteins, each with a different R group. Variation in the amino acid sequence is responsible for the enormous variation in protein structure and function.
Scientists use the name "amino acid" because these acids contain both amino groups and carboxylic acid groups in their basic structure. A single uppercase letter or a three-letter abbreviation represents amino acids. For example, the letter V or the three-letter symbol val represent valine.
The R group (or side chain) is different for every amino acid. The chemical nature of the side chain determines the amino acid's nature (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 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 amino acid's standard structure since its amino group is not separate from the side chain.
This text is adapted from Openstax, Biology 2e, Chapter 3.4: Proteins.
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