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How Amino Acids Are Made: A Deep Dive

Amino acids are synthesized through various biochemical pathways and industrial techniques. This process is essential for life and has significant applications in health and industry.

Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are crucial for the body’s structure and function. They are classified into essential and non-essential amino acids, with the former needing to be obtained through diet.

Natural Synthesis of Amino Acids

Humans synthesize 11 of the 20 standard amino acids. These non-essential amino acids include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine. The remaining nine—phenylalanine, valine, tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, methionine, histidine, leucine, and lysine—are essential and must come from the diet.

Key Pathways and Enzymes

Most amino acids are synthesized from α-ketoacids. These are transaminated from another amino acid, usually glutamate. The enzyme aminotransferase facilitates this reaction. For instance, glutamate forms by the amination of α-ketoglutarate.

In plants, nitrogen assimilates into organic compounds as glutamate. This forms from alpha-ketoglutarate and ammonia in the mitochondrion. Transaminases then move the amino group from glutamate to another alpha-keto acid. Aspartate aminotransferase, for example, converts glutamate and oxaloacetate to alpha-ketoglutarate and aspartate.

Specialized Amino Acids

Two additional amino acids, selenocysteine and pyrrolysine, exist. Selenocysteine occurs in enzymes like thioredoxin reductase and glutathione peroxidase. Pyrrolysine, not present in humans, is used in protein biosynthesis in some methanogenic species like archaea and bacteria.

Industrial Production of Amino Acids

The industrial production of amino acids relies heavily on fermentation. Corynebacterium glutamicum and Escherichia coli are commonly used bacteria. These bacteria can generate a wide range of amino acids. Metabolic engineering modifications enhance their efficiency. For instance, genetically modified C. glutamicum is used for high-yield production of L-lysine and L-glutamic acid. Similarly, modified E. coli facilitates the production of aromatic amino acids like L-tryptophan, L-phenylalanine, and L-tyrosine.

Chemical Synthesis

Chemical synthesis often involves mutant bacteria that overproduce individual amino acids using glucose as a carbon source. Some amino acids are produced by enzymatic conversions of synthetic intermediates. For example, 2-aminothiazoline-4-carboxylic acid is an intermediate in one industrial synthesis of L-cysteine. Aspartic acid is produced by adding ammonia to fumarate using a lyase.

Challenges and Innovations

Conventional methods for amino acid synthesis face several issues. These include the use of highly toxic cyanides, non-renewable resources, enzyme instability, and high energy consumption. Developing environmentally friendly technologies for amino acid synthesis is a significant challenge. Biomass, the most abundant renewable resource on Earth, is an ideal candidate for producing valuable chemicals and liquid fuels. Recent advancements highlight the potential of amino acid synthesis from biomass through chemocatalytic methods. This includes the catalytic conversion of biomass-derived oxygen-containing feedstocks to amino acids by introducing N-functional groups.

Amino Acids in Plants

In plants, aromatic amino acids like phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan are synthesized via the shikimate pathway. This is followed by the branched aromatic amino acid metabolic pathway, with chorismate serving as a major branch point intermediate metabolite. The regulation of their synthesis is not fully understood. Recent studies suggest an alternative route of phenylalanine biosynthesis via phenylpyruvate may exist in plants, similar to many microorganisms.

Role in Plant Metabolism

Aromatic amino acids are essential for protein synthesis. They also serve as precursors for a wide range of secondary metabolites. These are significant for plant growth and human nutrition and health. These include plant hormones like auxin and salicylate, as well as a variety of aromatic secondary metabolites. These have multiple biological functions and biotechnological value in the health-promoting, medical, and food industries.

Clinical Significance

Amino acids play a crucial role in human health and disease. Tyrosine can convert to hormones like thyroid hormones, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and melanin. Methionine, in its active form known as S-adenosylmethionine, plays a critical role in cellular processes. It transfers the methyl group to various substances through a process called transmethylation. Cystine and methionine are the primary sources of sulfur.

Key Takeaways

  • Amino acids are essential for life.
  • Humans synthesize 11 non-essential amino acids.
  • Nine essential amino acids must come from the diet.
  • Industrial production relies on fermentation and chemical synthesis.
  • Challenges exist in conventional methods.
  • Biomass offers a sustainable alternative.
  • Aromatic amino acids are crucial in plants.
  • Amino acids have significant clinical importance.


The synthesis of amino acids is a complicated process involving various biochemical pathways and industrial techniques. While humans can synthesize 11 of the 20 standard amino acids, the remaining nine essential amino acids must be obtained through diet. Industrial production primarily relies on fermentation processes, with significant advancements in genetic engineering and metabolic modifications. Despite the challenges, recent innovations in environmentally friendly technologies and biomass utilization hold promise for more sustainable amino acid synthesis.