How to memorize structures of all 20 amino acids in a simple way?

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(Last Updated On: June 19, 2017)
Structure of 20 amino acids

Standard 20 amino acids, their structure, name, and abbreviations

Biochemistry students often ask themselves one of the common questions; how to memorize structures of all 20 amino acids? However, using some tips, it’s possible to memorize all of the 20 standard amino acids. It’s not that hard for students to do that. You just need to follow some simple tips. First, you need to generalize the side chains of all these 20 amino acids based on their similarities.

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Look at the structure of glycine it’s the simplest amino acids with no chiral carbon. I’m sure you will remember the structure of glycine forever. So starting from the glycine, you can actually draw structures of all of the amino acids except for proline. All you need to replace the side chain with other groups.

Replace one H atom in the carbon of glycine with a CH3- group you will get alanine. Now, replace the one H atom from the -CH3 group with a phenyl group you will get phenylalanine. If you add an -OH group in the phenyl ring of the phenylalanine at a para position you will get tyrosine. See, so easy!

Now come to the alanine again and replace one H atom from the -CH3 group with  -OH group and you will get serine. So simple! Next, replace an H atom from the -CH2 group of the serine with -CH3 group, you will get threonine. However, if you replace O atom of the serine with S, it will give you cysteine. That’s so simple. Up to now, you have managed to remember structures of seven amino acids.

Now, replace one H atom of the side chain of alanine with a –COOH group you will get aspartic acid. That’s also so simple. Converting carboxyl group of the aspartic acid into an amide group will give you asparagines. Now, add one extra -CH2 group in the side chain of the aspartic acid you will get glutamic acid. Is not that simple? Again, convert the side chain carboxyl group of glutamic acid to amide group and you will get glutamine.

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Well if you want to get methionine, replace the side chain carboxyl group of glutamic acid with –S-CH3 group. Up to now, you have memorized structures of 12 amino acids and only 8 amino acids left to memorize.

For histidine and tryptophan

Now, you need to remember the structures of an imidazole ring and an indole ring. However, there is no shortcut rule to memorize those rings but you can always play around these two rings to distinguish them and positioning of the nitrogen atom in the ring.

For histidine, replace one H atom of the side chain of the alanine with an imidazole ring, you will get histidine. In the same way, if you remove one H atom of the side chain of the alanine with an indole ring, you will get tryptophan. That’s so simple.

For proline

In the case of proline, you have to understand what imino group is. An imino group is the one in which a nitrogen atom is connected to two different carbon atoms rather than hydrogen atoms. Proline is the only amino acid that has imino group. It means that two of the H atoms of its amino group are replaced with two carbon atoms. Other amino acids have amino group, but proline has imino group. So, to remember the structure of proline, connect alpha carbon of the glycine with amino N using a propyl group. It’s so simple. Propyl group attached to amino N and alpha C creates a ring structure; a unique structure of the proline.

Now, come to the alanine again. Now, replace the two H atoms of the side chain of the alanine with two CH3 group, you will get valine. If you replace one H atom of the side chain of the alanine with an isopropyl group, you will get leucine. And if you change the position of the terminal methyl group to the beta carbon, you will get isoleucine. Isn’t that simpIt’s It’s really simple. Now, only two amino acids left for which you need to memorize the structure.

For arginine and lysine

Now, only two amino acids left for which you need to memorize the structure and these amino acids are arginine and lysine. Well, they are also similar to each other but again you need to understand the structure of an arginino group. An arginino group looks similar to that of the structure of urea. If you replace the oxygen atom of urea with an NH2+ group you will get an arginino group. It’s so simple.

Now, come to the point. Add a propyl group to the alpha carbon of the glycine and attach an arginino group at the terminal carbon of the propyl group, you will get arginine. In a simple way, propyl group connects an arginino group with the alpha carbon of the glycine. In the same way, a butyl group connects an amino group to the alpha carbon of glycine to form a lysine. You see, it’s all simple to construct the structure of all 20 amino acids and memorize these structures. Good luck.

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