A-to-Z Challenge Day Three: Cellulose
One of the first things I learned in cellular biology was the composition of life. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that sugars and related organic compounds (in the organic chemistry sense, mono-, di-, oligo-, and polysaccharides) are some of the key players in biology.
And, of course, you learn that monomers like glucose, fructose, and galactose combine through a process called dehydration synthesis in different ways to give you more well-known sugars like sucrose (glu+fru), maltose (glu+glu) and lactose (glu+gal). I find this chemistry to be absolutely fascinating.
The main “energy currency” of the human body is a coenzyme called adenosine triphosphate, shortened to ATP. ATP works by a process called phosphorylation (plants have their own version called photophosphorylation) which is a complex process that is hard to explain in a few words. Our bodies use glucose in a process of glycolysis to produce ATP molecules and pyruvates needed for the Krebs Cycle.
There are other kinds of organic compounds composed of sugar monomers that are perhaps less well-known. For instance, the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans are made of a polymer called chitin which is a derivative of glucose. Bacteria in the mouth can polymerize simple sugars, along with proteins, to create a biofilm to protect themselves and it can lead to dental caries and other diseases.
So far I’ve talked about a bunch of stuff besides cellulose. Cellulose is a very interesting organic compound. It’s a polymer of glucose and is, therefore, a polysaccharide. Cellulose is the main component of paper, and according to wikipedia makes up 40-50% of the content of wood. It’s found in green plants, and is the most abundant organic compound on the planet. We know it as dietary fiber when we ingest it, and since we lack the enzymes to digest it, it passes through us.
Cellulose has also been used to produce what is called cellulosic ethanol, a type of biofuel.
The reason I bring all of this up is because I can look out my window right now and I see a deck made of wood, several different species of trees, grass, flowering plants, and insects crawling all over the windows. I’m sitting at a wooden desk, with a bonsai tree to my left. There are stacks of paper all around me and piles of books.
And I think…all of this stuff is made from simple sugars in some respect. It’s primarily glucose. How is it that so many amazing things can be made from this specific combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen? I’m not a spiritualist, but I almost get a kind of spiritual sense from a kind of interconnectedness that comes down to organic chemistry.
And I suppose this is why science and understanding the world can be very fulfilling.