Macromolecules – Definition, Types, Examples

Macromolecules Definition
The four types of macromolecules are proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids.

Macromolecules are large, complex molecules that are fundamental to both biological and chemical processes. They play a crucial role in the structure, function, and regulation of living organisms and have diverse applications in various scientific fields, including biochemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology.

Definition of Macromolecules

The definition of a macromolecule differs somewhat between biochemistry and biology:

In Biology

In biology, macromolecules refer to large organic molecules that form by polymerization, a process that joins smaller units called monomers via covalent bonds. These biological macromolecules are essential for life and include proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and lipids.

In Chemistry

In the realm of chemistry, macromolecules are defined as very large molecules with high molecular weight. They can be either natural, like DNA and proteins, or synthetic, like plastics and synthetic fibers. Their size is relative, generally considered to be over a thousand atoms. Intermolecular forces and not just covalent bonds may hold atoms in place.

History and Origin of the Term

The term “macromolecule” was coined by Nobel laureate Hermann Staudinger in the 1920s. He was a pioneer in polymer chemistry and proposed that polymers were long chains of atoms held together by covalent bonds, a revolutionary idea at the time. His work laid the foundation for understanding the structure and properties of macromolecules.

Macromolecular Structure: Monomers and Polymers

The structure of macromolecules ties into the concept of monomers and polymers. Monomers are small, repeating units that serve as the building blocks of polymers. A polymer is a large molecule made up of these monomers linked together in a chain-like fashion. The process of forming polymers from monomers occurs in various ways, often through dehydration synthesis.

Dehydration Synthesis and Hydrolysis

Dehydration reactions join monomers and form polymers. Meanwhile, hydrolysis reactions break apart macromolecules into their components.

Dehydration synthesis (also known as condensation reaction) is a process by which two molecules join together with the removal of a water molecule. For instance, the formation of a peptide bond between two amino acids involves the elimination of a water molecule.

Conversely, hydrolysis is the breakdown of a compound due to a reaction with water. It’s the reverse of dehydration synthesis. An example is the hydrolysis of starch into glucose monomers, where water molecules are added to break the glycosidic bonds.

Properties of Macromolecules

Macromolecules are diverse, but they share some common properties:

  1. Size and Complexity: Macromolecules are characteristically large and often consist of thousands of atoms.
  2. Solubility: Their solubility in water and other solvents varies widely.
  3. Melting and Boiling Points: They generally have high melting and boiling points. This is because the covalent bonds and intermolecular forces make them quite stable.
  4. Reactivity: The reactivity of macromolecules depends on the functional groups present in them.

Four Major Classes of Macromolecules in Biochemistry

The four classes of macromolecules in biochemistry are carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids. Each type has its own monomer subunit which joins to other monomers in specific ways.

1. Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are organic compounds that consist primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They are key sources of energy for most organisms and serve as structural components in plants.

  • Monomer: Monosaccharides (e.g., glucose)
  • Bond Type: Glycosidic bonds
  • Examples: Starch, cellulose, glycogen

2. Proteins

Proteins are complex macromolecules built from amino acid chains. They play a diverse role in the body, including catalyzing metabolic reactions, replicating DNA, responding to stimuli, and transporting molecules.

  • Monomer: Amino acids
  • Bond Type: Peptide bonds
  • Examples: Enzymes, antibodies, hemoglobin

3. Nucleic Acids

Nucleic acids are the macromolecules responsible for storing and transmitting genetic information. DNA holds the instructions for building and maintaining an organism, while RNA plays a critical role in protein synthesis and other cellular processes.

  • Monomer: Nucleotides
  • Bond Type: Phosphodiester bonds
  • Examples: DNA, RNA

4. Lipids

Lipids are a diverse group of hydrophobic molecules that include fats, oils, waxes, and certain vitamins. They are crucial for storing energy, building cellular membranes, and signaling within and between cells. Unlike other macromolecule classes, lipids are not polymers and are smaller in size. They fit the biochemistry definition of a macromolecule, but technically not the chemistry definition (over a thousand atoms).

  • Monomer: Glycerol and fatty acids
  • Bond Type: Ester bonds in triglycerides
  • Examples: Fats, oils, waxes

Uses of Macromolecules

Macromolecules play a vital role in both biological systems and various commercial applications.

Uses in Organisms

  1. Structural Support: Macromolecules like cellulose in plants and keratin in animals provide structural integrity. Collagen, another structural protein, is crucial for the strength and elasticity of skin, tendons, and ligaments.
  2. Enzymatic Functions: Proteins, a class of macromolecules, function as enzymes that catalyze biochemical reactions essential for life, such as digestion and metabolism.
  3. Genetic Information Storage: DNA and RNA, types of nucleic acids, store and transfer genetic information. DNA holds the genetic blueprint of an organism, while RNA plays a key role in protein synthesis.
  4. Energy Storage and Transfer: Carbohydrates like glycogen in animals and starch in plants store energy.
  5. Cell Communication and Signaling: Lipids and proteins form cell membranes and participate in cell signaling and communication. Hormones, many of which are proteins or lipids, regulate physiological processes.
  6. Immune Response: Antibodies are proteins in the immune system that identify and neutralize foreign pathogens like bacteria and viruses.

Commercial Applications

  1. Plastics and Polymers: Synthetic macromolecules, such as polyethylene and polystyrene, are plastics. Plastics find use in packaging, construction, electronics, and more.
  2. Textiles and Fibers: Nylon and polyester, synthetic polymers, are fibers that form fabrics for clothing, carpets, and other textiles.
  3. Pharmaceuticals: Many drugs are macromolecules or else interact with biological macromolecules. Insulin, a protein, is a key molecule in the treatment of diabetes.
  4. Food Industry: Pectin, a polysaccharide, is a gelling agent in jams and jellies. Starches and gums are carbohydrate macromolecules that are thickeners and stabilizers.
  5. Cosmetics and Personal Care: Certain proteins and lipids are ingredients in skincare and cosmetic products for their moisturizing and protective properties.
  6. Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering: DNA and RNA macromolecules have commercial applications in gene therapy and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
  7. Energy: Biofuels come from carbohydrate macromolecules in plants.
  8. Nanotechnology: Macromolecules create nanomaterials for applications in medicine, electronics, and materials science.
  9. Water Treatment: Certain polymer macromolecules are part of the water purification processes to aid in the filtration and treatment of water.
  10. Agriculture: Polysaccharides and other macromolecules find use in agricultural products like fertilizers and soil conditioners.


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