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Carbohydrates have the general molecular formula CH2O, and thus were once thought to represent "hydrated carbon". However, the arrangement of atoms in carbohydrates has little to do with water molecules.

Starch and cellulose are two common carbohydrates. Both are macromolecules with molecular weights in the hundreds of thousands. Both are polymers (hence "polysaccharides"); that is, each is built from repeating units, monomers, much as a chain is built from its links.

The monomers of both starch and cellulose are the same: units of the sugar glucose.



Three common sugars share the same molecular formula: C6H12O6. Because of their six carbon atoms, each is a hexose.

They are:

Although all three share the same molecular formula (C6H12O6), the arrangement of atoms differs in each case. Substances such as these three, which have identical molecular formulas but different structural formulas, are known as structural isomers.

Glucose, galactose, and fructose are "single" sugars or monosaccharides. Two monosaccharides can be linked together to form a "double" sugar or disaccharide.


Three common disaccharides:

Although the process of linking the two monomers is rather complex, the end result in each case is the loss of a hydrogen atom (H) from one of the monosaccharides and a hydroxyl group (OH) from the other. The resulting linkage between the sugars is called a glycosidic bond. The molecular formula of each of these disaccharides is

C12H22O11 = 2 C6H12O6 − H2O

All sugars are very soluble in water because of their many hydroxyl groups. Although not as concentrated a fuel as fats, sugars are the most important source of energy for many cells.

Carbohydrates provide the bulk of the calories (4 kcal/gram) in most diets, and starches provide the bulk of that. Starches are polysaccharides.



Starches are polymers of glucose. Two types are found:

Starches are insoluble in water and thus can serve as storage depots of glucose. Plants convert excess glucose into starch for storage. The image shows starch grains (lightly stained with iodine) in the cells of the white potato. Rice, wheat, and corn (maize) are also major sources of starch in the human diet.

Before starches can enter (or leave) cells, they must be digested. The hydrolysis of starch is done by amylases. With the aid of an amylase (such as pancreatic amylase), water molecules enter at the 1 -> 4 linkages, breaking the chain and eventually producing a mixture of glucose and maltose. A different amylase is needed to break the 1 -> 6 bonds of amylopectin.


Animals store excess glucose by polymerizing it to form glycogen. The structure of glycogen is similar to that of amylopectin, although the branches in glycogen tend to be shorter and more frequent.

Glycogen is broken back down into glucose when energy is needed (a process called glycogenolysis).

In glycogenolysis,

The liver and skeletal muscle are major depots of glycogen.

There is some evidence that intense exercise and a high-carbohydrate diet ("carbo-loading") can increase the reserves of glycogen in the muscles and thus may help marathoners work their muscles somewhat longer and harder than otherwise. But for most of us, carbo loading leads to increased deposits of fat.


Cellulose is probably the single most abundant organic molecule in the biosphere. It is the major structural material of which plants are made. Wood is largely cellulose while cotton and paper are almost pure cellulose.

Like starch, cellulose is a polysaccharide with glucose as its monomer. However, cellulose differs profoundly from starch in its properties.

The result is a series of stiff, elongated fibrils — the perfect material for building the cell walls of plants.

This electron micrograph (courtesy of R. D. Preston) shows the cellulose fibrils in the cell wall of a green alga. These long, rigid fibrils are a clear reflection of the nature of the cellulose molecules of which they are composed.

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21 March 2011