Proteins are organic compounds that make up living organisms and are essential to their functioning. First discovered in 1838, proteins are now recognized as the predominant ingredients of cells, making up more than 50 percent of the dry weight of animals. Protein molecules range from the long, insoluble fibers that make up connective tissue and hair to the compact, soluble globules that can pass through cell membranes and set off metabolic reactions. They are all large molecules, ranging in molecular weight from a few thousand to more than a million, and they are specific for each species and for each organ of each species. Humans have an estimated 30,000 different proteins, of which only about 2 percent have been adequately described. Proteins in the diet serve primarily to build and maintain cells, but their chemical breakdown also provides energy, yielding close to the same 4 calories per gram as do carbohydrates.
Besides their function in growth and cell maintenance, proteins are also responsible for muscle contraction. The digestive enzymes are proteins, as are insulin and most other hormones. The antibodies of the immune system are proteins, and proteins such as hemoglobin carry vital substances throughout the body.
To synthesize its life-essential proteins, each species needs given proportions of the 20 main amino acids. Although plants can manufacture all their amino acids from nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other chemicals through photosynthesis, most other organisms can manufacture only some of them. The remaining ones, called essential amino acids, must be derived from food. Eight essential amino acids are needed to maintain health in humans: leucine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, theonine, tryptophan, and valine.