In chemistry, an amino acid is a molecule containing both amine and carboxyl functional groups. These molecules are particularly important in biochemistry, where this term refers to alpha-amino acids with the general formula H2NCHRCOOH, where R is an organic substituent. In the alpha amino acids, the amino and carboxylate groups are attached to the same carbon atom, which is called the α–carbon. The various alpha amino acids differ in which side chain (R group) is attached to their alpha carbon. They can vary in size from just a hydrogen atom in glycine through a methyl group in alanine to a large heterocyclic group in tryptophan.
Amino acids are critical to life, and have a variety of roles in metabolism. One particularly important function is as the building blocks of proteins, which are linear chains of amino acids. Amino acids are also important in many other biological molecules, such as forming parts of coenzymes, as in S-adenosylmethionine, or as precursors for the biosynthesis of molecules such as heme. Due to this central role in biochemistry, amino acids are very important in nutrition.
Amino acids are commonly used in food technology and industry. For example, monosodium glutamate is a common flavor enhancer that gives foods the taste called umami. Beyond the amino acids that are found in all forms of life, amino acids are also used in industry. Applications include the production of biodegradable plastics, drugs and chiral catalysts.
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