Chemistry for Biologists


Carbohydrates (also called saccharides) are molecular compounds made from just three elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Monosaccharides (e.g. glucose) and disaccharides (e.g. sucrose) are relatively small molecules. They are often called sugars. Other carbohydrate molecules are very large (polysaccharides such as starch and cellulose).

Carbohydrates are:

  • a source of energy for the body e.g. glucose and a store of energy, e.g. starch in plants
  • building blocks for polysaccharides (giant carbohydrates), e.g. cellulose in plants and glycogen in the human body
  • components of other molecules eg DNA, RNA, glycolipids, glycoproteins, ATP


Monosaccharides are the simplest carbohydrates and are often called single sugars. They are the building blocks from which all bigger carbohydrates are made.

Monosaccharides have the general molecular formula (CH2O)n, where n can be 3, 5 or 6. They can be classified according to the number of carbon atoms in a molecule:

n = 3 trioses, e.g. glyceraldehyde
n = 5 pentoses, e.g. ribose and deoxyribose ('pent' indicates 5)
n = 6 hexoses, e.g. fructose, glucose and galactose ('hex' indicates 6)

There is more than one molecule with the molecular formula C5H10O5 and more than one with the molecular formula C6H12O6. Molecules that have the same molecular formula but different structural formulae are called structural isomers.

Glyceraldehyde's molecular formula is C3H6O3. Its structural formula shows it contains an aldehyde group (-CHO) and two hydroxyl groups (-OH). The presence of an aldehyde group means that glyceraldehyde can also be classified as an aldose. It is a reducing sugar and gives a positive test with Benedict's reagent.

CH2OHCH(OH)CHO is oxidised by Benedict's reagent to CH2OHCH(OH)COOH; the aldehyde group is oxidised to a carboxylic acid and Benedict's reagent is reduced (Cu2+ to Cu+).

ppt logo Learn more about glyceraldehyde

Pentoses and hexoses can exist in two forms: cyclic and non-cyclic. In the non-cyclic form their structural formulae show they contain either an aldehyde group or a ketone group.

ppt logo Learn more about non-cyclic forms of carbohydrates

Monosaccharides containing the aldehyde group are classified as aldoses, and those with a ketone group are classified as ketoses. Aldoses are reducing sugars; ketoses are non-reducing sugars. This is important in understanding the reaction of sugars with Benedict's reagent.

ppt logo Learn more about non-cyclic and cyclic forms of glucose

However, in water pentoses and hexoses exist mainly in the cyclic form, and it is in this form that they combine to form larger saccharide molecules.


Glucose is the most important carbohydrate fuel in human cells. Its concentration in the blood is about 1 gdm-3. The small size and solubility in water of glucose molecules allows them to pass through the cell membrane into the cell. Energy is released when the molecules are metabolised (C6H12O6 + 6O2  -->  6CO2 + 6H2O). This is part of the process of respiration.

See the topic on Chemistry for Biologists logo  Respiration

See the topic on Chemistry for Biologists logo  In and out of cells

There are two forms of the cyclic glucose molecule: α-glucose and β-glucose.

α-glucose - click on image to open
β-glucose - click on image to open

Two glucose molecules react to form the dissacharide maltose. Starch and cellulose are polysaccharides made up of glucose units.


Galactose molecules look very similar to glucose molecules. They can also exist in α and β forms. Galactose reacts with glucose to make the dissacharide lactose.

α-galactose - click on image to open
β-galactose - click on image to open

However, glucose and galactose cannot be easily converted into one another. Galactose cannot play the same part in respiration as glucose.

This comparison of glucose and galactose shows why the precise arrangement of atoms in a molecule (shown by the displayed formula) is so important.


Fructose, glucose and galactose are all hexoses. However, whereas glucose and galactose are aldoses (reducing sugars), fructose is a ketose (a non-reducing sugar). It also has a five-atom ring rather than a six-atom ring. Fructose reacts with glucose to make the dissacharide sucrose.

α-fructose - click on image to open

Ribose and deoxyribose

Ribose and deoxyribose are pentoses. The ribose unit forms part of a nucleotide of RNA. The deoxyribose unit forms part of the nucleotide of DNA.

Ribose - click on image to open
Deoxyribose - click on image to open


Monosaccharides are rare in nature. Most sugars found in nature are disaccharides. These form when two monosaccharides react.

ppt logo Learn more about the disaccharide maltose

A condensation reaction takes place releasing water. This process requires energy. A glycosidic bond forms and holds the two monosaccharide units together.

ppt logo Learn more about the disaccharide lactose

The three most important disaccharides are sucrose, lactose and maltose. They are formed from the a forms of the appropriate monosaccharides. Sucrose is a non-reducing sugar. Lactose and maltose are reducing sugars.

Disaccharide Monosaccharides
sucrose from α-glucose + α-fructose
maltose from α-glucose + α-glucose
α-lactose * from α-glucose + β-galactose

* Lactose also exists in a beta form, which is made from β-galactose and β-glucose

Disaccharides are soluble in water, but they are too big to pass through the cell membrane by diffusion. They are broken down in the small intestine during digestion to give the smaller monosaccharides that pass into the blood and through cell membranes into cells.

C12H22O11 + H2O  -->  C6H12O6 + C6H12O6

This is a hydrolysis reaction and is the reverse of a condensation reaction. It releases energy.

ppt logo Learn more about the hydrolysis of sucrose

Monosaccharides are used very quickly by cells. However, a cell may not need all the energy immediately and it may need to store it. Monosaccharides are converted into disaccharides in the cell by condensation reactions. Further condensation reactions result in the formation of polysaccharides. These are giant molecules which, importantly, are too big to escape from the cell. These are broken down by hydrolysis into monosaccharides when energy is needed by the cell.


Monosaccharides can undergo a series of condensation reactions, adding one unit after another to the chain until very large molecules (polysaccharides) are formed. This is called condensation polymerisation, and the building blocks are called monomers. The properties of a polysaccharide molecule depend on:

  • its length (though they are usually very long)
  • the extent of any branching (addition of units to the side of the chain rather than one of its ends)
  • any folding which results in a more compact molecule
  • whether the chain is 'straight' or 'coiled'


Starch is often produced in plants as a way of storing energy. It exists in two forms: amylose and amylopectin. Both are made from α-glucose. Amylose is an unbranched polymer of α-glucose. The molecules coil into a helical structure. It forms a colloidal suspension in hot water. Amylopectin is a branched polymer of α-glucose. It is completely insoluble in water.

Section of the amylose molecule
section of the amylose molecule
A section of the amylose molecule
A section of the amylose molecule - click on image to open


Section of the amylopectin molecule
section of the amylopectin molecule
A section of the amylopectin molecule
A section of the amylopectin molecule - click on image to open


Glycogen is amylopectin with very short distances between the branching side-chains. Starch from plants is hydrolysed in the body to produce glucose. Glucose passes into the cell and is used in metabolism. Inside the cell, glucose can be polymerised to make glycogen which acts as a carbohydrate energy store.


Cellulose is a third polymer made from glucose. But this time it's made from β-glucose molecules and the polymer molecules are 'straight'.

Section of a cellulose molecule
section of the cellulose molecule
Cellulose - click on image to open

Cellulose serves a very different purpose in nature to starch and glycogen. It makes up the cell walls in plant cells. These are much tougher than cell membranes. This toughness is due to the arrangement of glucose units in the polymer chain and the hydrogen-bonding between neighbouring chains.

Cellulose is not hydrolysed easily and, therefore, cannot be digested so it is not a source of energy for humans. The stomachs of Herbivores contain a specific enzyme called cellulase which enables them to digest cellulose.

Test your knowledge

Take quiz on Carbohydrates