Polysaccharides (sometimes called glycans) are relatively complex carbohydrates.
They are polymers made up of many monosaccharides joined together by glycosidic linkages. They are therefore very large, often branched, molecules. They tend to be amorphous, insoluble in water, and have no sweet taste.
When all the constituent monosaccharides are of the same type they are termed homopolysaccharides; when more than one type of monosaccharide is present they are termed heteropolysaccharides.
Examples include storage polysaccharides such as starch and glycogen and structural polysaccharides such as cellulose and chitin.
Polysaccharides have a general formula of Cn(H2O)n-1 where n is usually a large number between 200 and 500.
Starches are glucose polymers in which glucopyranose units are bonded by alpha-linkages.
Amylose consists of a linear chain of several hundred glucose molecules. Amylopectin
is a branched molecule made of several thousand of glucose units.
Starches are insoluble in water. They can be digested by hydrolysis catalyzed by enzymes called amylases, which can break the alpha-linkages. Humans and other animals have amylases, so they can digest starches. Potato, rice, wheat, and maize are major sources of starch in the human diet.
Glycogen is the storage form of glucose in animals. It is a branched polymer of glucose. Glycogen can be broken down to form substrates for respiration, through the process of glycogenolysis. This involves the breaking of most of the C-O-C bonds between the glucose molecules by the addition of a phosphate, rather than a water as in hydrolysis. This process yields phosphorylated glucose molecules, which can be metabolized with a saving of one ATP molecule.
The structural components of plants are formed primarily from cellulose. Wood is largely cellulose and lignin, while paper and cotton are nearly pure cellulose. Cellulose is a polymer made with repeated glucose units bonded together by beta-linkages. Humans and many other animals lack an enzyme to break the beta-linkages, so they do not digest cellulose. Certain animals can digest cellulose, because bacteria possessing the enzyme are present in their gut. The classic example is the termite.
Acidic polysaccharides are polysaccharides that contain carboxyl groups, phosphate groups and/or sulfuric ester groups.
Pathogenic bacteria commonly produce a thick, mucous-like, layer of polysaccharide. This "capsule" cloaks antigenic proteins on the bacterial surface that would otherwise provoke an immune response and thereby lead to the destruction of the bacteria. Capsular polysaccharides are water soluble, commonly acidic, and have molecular weights on the order of 100-1000 kDa. They are linear and consist of regularly repeating subunits of one ~ six monosaccharides. There is enormous structural diversity; nearly two hundred different polysaccharides are produced by E. coli alone. Mixtures of capsular polysaccharides, either conjugated or native are used as vaccines.
Bacteria and many other microbes, including fungi and algae, often secrete polysaccharides as an evolutionary adaptation to help them adhere to surfaces and to prevent them from drying out. Humans have developed some of these polysaccharides into useful products, including xanthan gum, dextran, gellan gum, and pullulan.
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