Proteins and Amino Acids

The sequence of the different amino acids is called the primary structure of the peptide or protein. Counting of residues always starts at the N-terminal end (NH2-group), which is the end, where the amino group is not involved in a peptide bond. The primary structure of a protein is determined by the gene corresponding to the protein. A specific sequence of nucleotides in DNA is transcribed into mRNA, which is read by the ribosome in a process called translation. The sequence of a protein is unique to that protein, and defines the structure and function of the protein. The sequence of a protein can be determined by methods such as Edman degradation or tandem mass spectrometry. Often however, it is read directly from the sequence of the gene using the genetic code. Post-transcriptional modifications such as disulfide formation, phosphorylations and glycosylations are usually also considered a part of the primary structure, and cannot be read from the gene.

By building models of peptides using known information about bond lengths and angles, the first elements of secondary structure, the alpha helix and the beta sheet, were suggested in 1951 by Linus Pauling and coworkers. Both the alpha helix and the beta-sheet represent a way of saturating all the hydrogen bond donors and acceptors in the peptide backbone. These secondary structure elements only depend on properties that all the residues have in common, explaining why they occur frequently in most proteins. Since then other elements of secondary structure have been discovered such as various loops and other forms of helices. The part of the backbone that is not in a regular secondary structure is said to be random coil. Each of these two secondary structure elements have a regular geometry, meaning they are constrained to specific values of the dihedral angles ψ and φ. Thus they can be found in a specific region of the Ramachandran plot.

The elements of secondary structure are usually folded into a compact shape using a variety of loops and turns. The formation of tertiary structure is usually driven by the burial of hydrophobic residues, but other interactions such as hydrogen bonding, ionic interactions and disulfide bonds can also stabilize the tertiary structure. The tertiary structure encompasses all the noncovalent interactions that are not considered secondary structure, and is what defines the overall fold of the protein, and is usually indispensable for the function of the protein.

The quarternary structure is the interaction between several chains of peptide bonds. The individual chains are called subunits. The individual subunits are not necessarily covalently connected, but might be connected by a disulfide bond. Not all proteins have quarternary structure, since they might be functional as monomers. The quarternary structure is stabilized by the same range of interactions as the tertiary structure. Complexes of two or more polypeptides (i.e. multiple subunits) are called multimers. Specifically it would be called a dimer if it contains two subunits, a trimer if it contains three subunits, and a tetramer if it contains four subunits. Multimers made up of identical subunits may be referred to with a prefix of "homo-" (e.g. a homotetramer) and those made up of different subunits may be referred to with a prefix of "hetero-" (e.g. a heterodimer).

Two amino acids can be combined in a condensation reaction. By repeating this reaction, long chains of residues (amino acids in a peptide bond) can be generated. This reaction is catalysed by the ribosome in a process known as translation. The peptide bond is in fact planar due to the delocalization of the electrons from the double bond. The rigid peptide dihedral angle, ω (the bond between C1 and N) is always close to 180 degrees. The dihedral angles φ (the bond between N and Cα) and psi ψ (the bond between Cα and C1) can have a certain range of possible values. These angles are the degrees of freedom of a protein, they control the protein's three dimensional structure. They are restrained by geometry to allowed ranges typical for particular secondary structure elements, and represented in a Ramachandran plot. A few important bond lengths are given in the table below.

A protein, just like any other thing, can be mutated. This happens when there is a dysfunction in the peptide bonds or in the forming of the proteins. Also, a protein can be changed due to outside forces. Temperature and pH both do this thing. When a protein is changed it can affect the body very much. This is how sickle cell anemia comes around. The mutations of proteins mostly do more harm than good to the body.

-Biology 8th edition textbook, Solomon Berg Martin
-Mt. Sinai library database