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The Chemistry of Amino Acids

Introduction

Amino acids play central roles both as building blocks of proteins and as intermediates in metabolism. The 20 amino acids that are found within proteins convey a vast array of chemical versatility. The precise amino acid content, and the sequence of those amino acids, of a specific protein, is determined by the sequence of the bases in the gene that encodes that protein. The chemical properties of the amino acids of proteins determine the biological activity of the protein. Proteins not only catalyze all (or most) of the reactions in living cells, they control virtually all cellular process. In addition, proteins contain within their amino acid sequences the necessary information to determine how that protein will fold into a three dimensional structure, and the stability of the resulting structure. The field of protein folding and stability has been a critically important area of research for years, and remains today one of the great unsolved mysteries. It is, however, being actively investigated, and progress is being made every day.

actively investigated, and progress is being made every day. As we learn about amino acids, it

As we learn about amino acids, it is important to keep in mind that one of the more important reasons to understand amino acid structure and properties is to be able to understand protein structure and properties. We will see that the vastly complex characteristics of even a small, relatively simple, protein are a composite of the properties of the amino acids which comprise the protein.

Essential amino acids Humans can produce 10 of the 20 amino acids. The others must be supplied in the food. Failure to obtain enough of even 1 of the 10 essential amino acids, those that we cannot make, results in degradation of the body's proteins—muscle and so forth— to obtain the one amino acid that is needed. Unlike fat and starch, the human body does not store excess amino acids for later use—the amino acids must be in the food every day.

The 10 amino acids that we can produce are alanine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine and tyrosine. Tyrosine is produced from phenylalanine, so if the diet is deficient in phenylalanine, tyrosine will be required as well. The essential amino acids are arginine (required for the young, but not for adults), histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These amino acids are required in the diet. Plants, of course, must be able to make all the amino acids. Humans, on the other hand, do not have all the the enzymes required for the biosynthesis of all of the amino acids.

Amino Acids

Alanine

Arginine

Asparagine

Aspartic acid

Cysteine

Glutamic acid

Glutamine

Glycine

Histidine

Isoleucine

Leucine

Lysine

Methionine

Phenylalanine

Proline

Serine

Threonine

Tryptophan

Tyrosine

Valine

Atoms in Amino Acids

Threonine Tryptophan Tyrosine Valine Atoms in Amino Acids Why learn these structures and properties? It is

Why learn these structures and properties? It is critical that all students of the life sciences know well the structure and chemistry

of the amino acids and other building blocks of biological molecules. Otherwise, it is impossible to think or talk sensibly about proteins and enzymes, or the nucleic acids.

Alanine A (Ala)

Chemical Properties:

Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group)

Amino Acids

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Alanine is a hydrophobic molecule. It is ambivalent, meaning that it can be inside or outside of the protein molecule. The ! carbon of alanine is optically active; in proteins, only the L-isomer is found.

Note that alanine is the ! -amino acid analog of the ! -keto acid pyruvate, an intermediate in sugar metabolism. Alanine and pyruvate are interchangeable by a transamination reaction.

pyruvate are interchangeable by a transamination reaction. Interchangeable with Pyruvate Arginine R (Arg) Chemical

Interchangeable with Pyruvate

by a transamination reaction. Interchangeable with Pyruvate Arginine R (Arg) Chemical Properties: Basic Physical

Arginine R (Arg)

Chemical Properties:

Basic

Interchangeable with Pyruvate Arginine R (Arg) Chemical Properties: Basic Physical Properties : Polar (positively charged)
Interchangeable with Pyruvate Arginine R (Arg) Chemical Properties: Basic Physical Properties : Polar (positively charged)

Physical Properties:

Polar (positively charged)

(Basic R-group)

Arginine, an essential amino acid, has a positively charged guanidino group. Arginine is well designed to bind the phosphate anion, and is often found in the active centers of proteins that bind phosphorylated substrates. As a cation, arginine, as well as lysine, plays a role in maintaining the overall charge balance of a protein.

Arginine also plays an important role in nitrogen metabolism. In the urea cycle, the enzyme arginase cleaves (hydrolyzes) the guanidinium group to yield urea and the L-amino acid ornithine. Ornithine is lysine with one fewer methylene groups in the side chain. L-ornithine is not normally found in proteins.

side chain. L-ornithine is not normally found in proteins. There are 6 codons in the genetic

There are 6 codons in the genetic code for arginine, yet, although this large a number of codons is normally associated with a high frequency of the particular amino acid in proteins, arginine is one of the least frequent amino acids. The discrepancy between the frequency of the amino acid in proteins and the number of codons is greater for arginine than for any other amino acid.

is greater for arginine than for any other amino acid. Asparagine N (Asn) Chemical Properties: Neutral

Asparagine N (Asn)

Chemical Properties:

Neutral

than for any other amino acid. Asparagine N (Asn) Chemical Properties: Neutral Physical Properties : Polar

Physical Properties:

Polar (uncharged)

(Amides of acidic amino acids R-group) Asparagine is the amide of aspartic acid. The amide group does not carry a formal charge under any biologically relevant pH conditions. The amide is rather easily hydrolyzed, converting asparagine to aspartic acid. This process is thought to be one of the factors related to the molecular basis of aging.

Asparagine has a high propensity to hydrogen bond, since the amide group can accept two and donate two hydrogen bonds. It is found on the surface as well as buried within proteins.

Asparagine is a common site for attachment of carbohydrates in glycoproteins.

site for attachment of carbohydrates in glycoproteins. Aspartic Acid D (Asp) Chemical Properties: Acidic Physical

Aspartic Acid D (Asp)

Chemical Properties:

Acidic

Aspartic Acid D (Asp) Chemical Properties: Acidic Physical Properties : Polar (charged) (Acidic R-group and

Physical Properties:

Polar (charged)

(Acidic R-group and their amides) Aspartic acid is one of two acidic amino acids. Aspartic acid and glutamic acid play important roles as general acids in enzyme active centers, as well as in maintaining the solubility and ionic character of proteins.

Proteins in the serum are critical to maintaining the pH balance in the body; it is largely the charged amino acids that are involved in the buffering properties of proteins. Aspartic acid is alanine with one of the ! hydrogens replaced by a carboxylic acid group. The pKa of the ! carboxyl group of aspartic acid in a polypeptide is about 4.0

Note that aspartic acid has an " -keto homolog, oxaloacetate, just as pyruvate is the " -keto homolog of alanine. Aspartic acid and oxaloacetate are interconvertable by a simple transamination reaction, just as alanine and pyruvate are interconvertible.

Oxaloacetate is one of the intermediates of the Krebs cycle.

Oxaloacetate is one of the intermediates of the Krebs cycle. Aspartic acid and oxaloacetate are interconvertable
Oxaloacetate is one of the intermediates of the Krebs cycle. Aspartic acid and oxaloacetate are interconvertable

Aspartic acid and oxaloacetate are interconvertable by a simple transamination reaction

are interconvertable by a simple transamination reaction Cysteine C (Cys) Chemical Properties: Sulfur-containing

Cysteine C (Cys)

Chemical Properties:

Sulfur-containing

(Sulfur containing group)

Properties: Sulfur-containing (Sulfur containing group) Physical Properties : Polar (uncharged) Cysteine is one of

Physical Properties:

Polar (uncharged)

Cysteine is one of two sulfur-containing amino acids; the other is methionine. Cysteine differs from serine in a single atom-- the sulfur of the thiol replaces the oxygen of the alcohol. The amino acids are, however, much more different in their physical and chemical properties than their similarity might suggest.

Consider, for example, the differences between H 2 O and H 2 S. The hydrogen bonding

propensity of water is well known and is responsible for many of its remarkable features. Under similar conditions of temperature and pressure, however, H 2 S is a gas as a consequence of its weak H-bonding propensity. Furthermore, the proton of the thiol of cysteine is much more acid than the hydroxylic proton of serine, making the nucleophilic thiol(ate) much more reactive than the hydroxyl of serine.

Cysteine also plays a key role in stabilizing extracellular proteins. Cysteine can react with itself to form an oxidized dimer by formation of a disulfide bond. The environment within a cell is too strongly reducing for disulfides to form, but in the extracellular environment, disulfides can form and play a key role in stabilizing many such proteins, such as the digestive enzymes of the small intestine.

Cysteine and methionine are the only sulfur-containing amino acids.

and methionine are the only sulfur-containing amino acids. Glutamic Acid E (Glu) Chemical Properties: Acidic

Glutamic Acid E (Glu)

Chemical Properties:

Acidic

(AcidicR-group and their amides) Interconvertible with ! -ketoglutarate Involved in the biosynthesis of Proline

! -ketoglutarate Involved in the biosynthesis of Proline Physical Properties : Polar (charged) Glutamic acid has

Physical Properties:

Polar (charged)

Glutamic acid has one additional methylene group in its side chain than does aspartic acid. The side chain carboxyl of aspartic acid is referred to as the " carboxyl group, while that of glutamic acid is referred to as the # carboxyl group.

The pK a of the # carboxyl group for glutamic acid in a polypeptide is about 4.3, significantly higher than that of aspartic acid. This is due to the inductive effect of the additional methylene group. In some proteins, due to a vitamin K dependent carboxylase, some glutamic acids will be dicarboxylic acids, referred to as # carboxyglutamic acid, that form tight binding sites for calcium ion.

acids will be dicarboxylic acids, referred to as # carboxyglutamic acid, that form tight binding sites
Glutamic acid is interconvertible by transamination with ! -ketoglutarate Glutamic acid and ! -ketoglutarate, an
Glutamic acid is interconvertible by transamination with ! -ketoglutarate Glutamic acid and ! -ketoglutarate, an

Glutamic acid is interconvertible by transamination with ! -ketoglutarate

Glutamic acid and ! -ketoglutarate, an intermediate in the Krebs cycle, are interconvertible by transamination. Glutamic acid can therefore enter the Krebs cycle for energy metabolism, and be converted by the enzyme glutamine synthetase into glutamine, which is one of the key players in nitrogen metabolism.

which is one of the key players in nitrogen metabolism. Biosynthesis of Proline Note also that
which is one of the key players in nitrogen metabolism. Biosynthesis of Proline Note also that

Biosynthesis of Proline

Note also that glutamic acid is easily converted into proline. First, the " carboxyl group is reduced to the aldehyde, yielding glutamate semialdehyde. The aldehyde then reacts with the ! -amino group, eliminating water as it forms the Schiff base. In a second reduction step, the Schiff base is reduced, yielding proline.

Glutamine Q (Gln) Chemical Properties: Neutral (Amides of acidic amino acids R-group) Physical Properties :

Glutamine Q (Gln)

Chemical Properties:

Neutral (Amides of acidic amino acids R-group)

Physical Properties:

Polar (uncharged)

Glutamine is the amide of glutamic acid, and is uncharged under all biological conditions.

The additional single methylene group in the side chain relative to asparagine allows glutamine in the free form or as the N-terminus of proteins to spontaneously cyclize and deamidate yielding the six-membered ring structure pyrrolidone carboxylic acid, which is found at the N-terminus of many immunoglobulin polypeptides. This causes obvious difficulties with amino acid sequence determination.

N-terminus of many immunoglobulin polypeptides. This causes obvious difficulties with amino acid sequence determination.
N-terminus of many immunoglobulin polypeptides. This causes obvious difficulties with amino acid sequence determination.

Glycine G (Gly)

Chemical Properties:

Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group)

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Glycine is the smallest of the amino acids. It is ambivalent, meaning that it can be inside or outside of the protein molecule. In aqueous solution at or near neutral pH, glycine will exist predominantly as the zwitterion

The isoelectric point or isoelectric pH of glycine will be centered between the pK a s of the two ionizable groups, the amino group and the carboxylic acid group.

In estimating the pK a of a functional group, it is important to consider the molecule as a whole. For example, glycine is a derivative of acetic acid, and the pK a of acetic acid is well known. Alternatively, glycine could be considered a derivative of aminoethane.

glycine could be considered a derivative of aminoethane. Histidine H (His) Chemical Properties: Basic (Basic group)

Histidine H (His)

Chemical Properties:

Basic

(Basic group)

Histidine H (His) Chemical Properties: Basic (Basic group) Physical Properties : Polar (positively charged) Histidine,

Physical Properties:

Polar (positively charged)

Histidine, an essential amino acid, has as a positively charged imidazole functional group.

The imidazole makes it a common participant in enzyme catalyzed reactions. The unprotonated imidazole is nucleophilic and can serve as a general base, while the protonated form can serve as a general acid. The residue can also serve a role in stabilizing the folded

structures of proteins.

structures of proteins. Isoleucine I (Ile) Chemical Properties: Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group) Physical Properties :

Isoleucine I (Ile)

Chemical Properties:

Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group)

I (Ile) Chemical Properties: Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Isoleucine, an essential

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Isoleucine, an essential amino acid, is one of the three amino acids having branched hydrocarbon side chains. It is usually interchangeable with leucine and occasionally with valine in proteins.

The side chains of these amino acids are not reactive and therefore not involved in any covalent chemistry in enzyme active centers.

However, these residues are critically important for ligand binding to proteins, and play central roles in protein stability. Note also that the ! carbon of isoleucine is optically active, just as the ! carbon of threonine. These two amino acids, isoleucine and threonine, have in common the fact that they have two chiral centers.

of threonine. These two amino acids, isoleucine and threonine, have in common the fact that they
Leucine L (Leu) Chemical Properties: Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Leucine , an

Leucine L (Leu)

Chemical Properties:

Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group)

L (Leu) Chemical Properties: Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Leucine , an essential

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Leucine, an essential amino acid, is one of the three amino acid with a branched hydrocarbon side chain. It has one additional methylene group in its side chain compared with valine.

Like valine, leucine is hydrophobic and generally buried in folded proteins.

chain compared with valine. Like valine, leucine is hydrophobic and generally buried in folded proteins. Lysine

Lysine K (Lys)

chain compared with valine. Like valine, leucine is hydrophobic and generally buried in folded proteins. Lysine

Chemical Properties:

Basic (Basic R-group)

Physical Properties:

Polar (positively charged)

Lysine. an essential amino acid, has a positively charged !-amino group (a primary amine).

Lysine is basically alanine with a propylamine substituent on the! carbon. The "-amino group has a significantly higher pK a (about 10.5 in polypeptides) than does the # -amino group.

The amino group is highly reactive and often participates in a reactions at the active centers of enzymes. Proteins only have one # amino group, but numerous " amino groups. However, the higher pK a renders the lysyl side chains effectively less nucleophilic. Specific environmental effects in enzyme active centers can lower the pKa of the lysyl side chain such that it becomes reactive.

Note that the side chain has three methylene groups, so that even though the terminal amino group will be charged under physiological conditions, the side chain does have significant hydrophobic character. Lysines are often found buried with only the"amino group exposed to solvent.

buried with only the " amino group exposed to solvent. Methionine M (Met) Chemical Properties: Sulfur-containing

Methionine M (Met)

Chemical Properties:

Sulfur-containing

(Sulfur containing group)

M (Met) Chemical Properties: Sulfur-containing (Sulfur containing group) Physical Properties : Non polar (hydrophobic)

Physical Properties:

Non polar (hydrophobic)

Methionine, an essential amino acid, is one of the two sulfur-containing amino acids. The side chain is quite hydrophobic and methionine is usually found buried within proteins. Unlike cysteine, the sulfur of methionine is not highly nucleophilic, although it will react with some electrophilic centers. It is generally not a participant in the covalent chemistry that occurs in the active centers of enzymes.

The chemical linkage of the sulfur in methionine is a thiol ether. Compare this terminology with that of the oxygen containing ethers. The sulfur of methionine, as with that of cysteine, is prone to oxidation. The first step, yielding methionine sulfoxide, can be reversed by standard thiol containing reducing agents. The second step yields methionine sulfone, and is effectively irreversible. It is thought that oxidation of the sulfur in a specific methionine of the elastase inhibitor in human lung tissue by agents in cigarette smoke is one of the causes of smoking- induced emphysema.

Methionine as the free amino acid plays several important roles in metabolism. It can react to form S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine (SAM) which servers at a methyl donor in reactions.

Methionine and cysteine are the only sulfur-containing amino acids.

and cysteine are the only sulfur-containing amino acids. Phenylalanine F (Phe) Chemical Properties: Aromatic

Phenylalanine F (Phe)

Chemical Properties:

Aromatic (Aromatic R-group)

amino acids. Phenylalanine F (Phe) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

As the name suggests, phenylalanine, an essential amino acid, is a derivative of alanine with a phenyl substituent on the ! carbon. Phenylalanine is quite hydrophobic and even the free amino acid is not very soluble in water.

It is an interesting point of history that Marshall Nirenberg and Phil Leder in their earliest experiments were studying the translation of the synthetic message polyU, which encodes polyphenylalanine. It was a happy coincidence that the product was insoluble. At the time, they did not know that UUU encodes Phe, but soon after the precipitate formed in their translation mix, they did, and they were on the way to unraveling the genetic code, and the Nobel prize.

Due to its hydrophobicity, phenylalanine is nearly always found buried within a protein. The " electrons of the phenyl ring can stack with other aromatic systems and often do within folded proteins, adding to the stability of the structure.

folded proteins, adding to the stability of the structure. Proline P (Pro) Chemical Properties: Cyclic Physical

Proline P (Pro)

Chemical Properties:

Cyclic

the structure. Proline P (Pro) Chemical Properties: Cyclic Physical Properties : Nonpolar Biosynthesis of Proline

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Biosynthesis of Proline Proline shares many properties with the aliphatic group.

Proline is formally NOT an amino acid, but an imino acid. Nonetheless, it is called an amino acid. The primary amine on the # carbon of glutamate semialdehyde forms a Schiff base with the aldehyde which is then reduced, yielding proline.

When proline is in a peptide bond, it does not have a hydrogen on the # amino group, so it cannot donate a hydrogen bond to stabilize an # helix or a ! sheet. It is often said, inaccurately, that proline

cannot exist in an ! helix. When proline is found in an ! helix, the helix will have a slight bend due to the lack of the hydrogen bond.

Proline is often found at the end of ! helix or in turns or loops. Unlike other amino acids which exist almost exclusively in the trans- form in polypeptides, proline can exist in the cis-configuration in peptides. The cis and trans forms are nearly isoenergetic. The cis/trans isomerization can play an important role in the folding of proteins and will be discussed more in that context.

Proline is the only cyclic amino acid.

more in that context. Proline is the only cyclic amino acid. Biosynthesis of Proline Glutamic acid
more in that context. Proline is the only cyclic amino acid. Biosynthesis of Proline Glutamic acid

Biosynthesis of Proline

Glutamic acid is easily converted into proline. First, the " carboxyl group is reduced to the aldehyde, yielding glutamate semialdehyde. The aldehyde then reacts with the ! -amino group, eliminating water as it forms the Schiff base. In a second reduction step, the Schiff base is reduced, yielding proline.

eliminating water as it forms the Schiff base. In a second reduction step, the Schiff base

Serine S (Ser)

Chemical Properties:

Non-aromatic hydroxyl

(Hydroxyl group)

Physical Properties:

Polar (uncharged)

Serine differs from alanine in that one of the methylenic hydrogens is replaced by a hydroxyl group.

Serine is one of two hydroxyl amino acids. Both are commonly considered to by hydrophilic due to the hydrogen bonding capacity of the hydroxyl group.

due to the hydrogen bonding capacity of the hydroxyl group. Threonine T (Thr) Chemical Properties: Non-aromatic

Threonine T (Thr)

Chemical Properties:

Non-aromatic hydroxyl

(Hydroxyl group)

Chemical Properties: Non-aromatic hydroxyl (Hydroxyl group) Physical Properties : Polar (uncharged) Threonine , an

Physical Properties:

Polar (uncharged)

Threonine, an essential amino acid, is a hydrophilic molecule.

Threonine is an other hydroxyl-containing amino acid. It differs from serine by having a methyl substituent in place of one of the hydrogens on the ! carbon and it differs from valine by replacement of a methyl substituent with a hydroxyl group.

Note that both the " and ! carbons of threonine are optically active.

a methyl substituent with a hydroxyl group. Note that both the " and ! carbons of
a methyl substituent with a hydroxyl group. Note that both the " and ! carbons of
Differs from serine Differs from valine Tryptophan W (Trp) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic R-group) Physical

Differs from serine

Differs from serine Differs from valine Tryptophan W (Trp) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic R-group) Physical

Differs from valine

Differs from serine Differs from valine Tryptophan W (Trp) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic R-group) Physical

Tryptophan W (Trp)

Chemical Properties:

Aromatic (Aromatic R-group)

W (Trp) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Tryptophan , an essential
W (Trp) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Tryptophan , an essential
W (Trp) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Tryptophan , an essential

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is the largest of the amino acids. It is also a derivative of alanine, having an indole substituent on the ! carbon. The indole functional group absorbs strongly in the near ultraviolet part of the spectrum. The indole nitrogen can hydrogen bond donate, and as a result, tryptophan, or at least the nitrogen, is often in contact with solvent in folded proteins.

Tyrosine Y (Tyr) Chemical Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic group & Hydroxyl group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar

Tyrosine Y (Tyr)

Chemical Properties:

Aromatic (Aromatic group & Hydroxyl group)

Properties: Aromatic (Aromatic group & Hydroxyl group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Tyrosine, an essential

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Tyrosine, an essential amino acid, is also an aromatic amino acid and is derived from phenylalanine by hydroxylation in the para position. While tyrosine is hydrophobic, it is significantly more soluble that is phenylalanine. The phenolic hydroxyl of tyrosine is significantly more acidic than are the aliphatic hydroxyls of either serine or threonine, having a pK a of about 9.8 in polypeptides. As with all ionizable groups, the precise pK a will depend to a major degree upon the environment within the protein. Tyrosines that are on the surface of a protein will generally have a lower pK a than those that are buried within a protein; ionization yielding the phenolate anion would be exceedingly unstable in the hydrophobic interior of a protein.

Tyrosine absorbs ultraviolet radiation and contributes to the absorbance spectra of proteins. The absorbance spectrum of tyrosine will be shown later; the extinction of tyrosine is only about 1/5 that of tryptophan at 280 nm, which is the primary contributor to the UV absorbance of proteins depending upon the number of residues of each in the protein.

is the primary contributor to the UV absorbance of proteins depending upon the number of residues
is the primary contributor to the UV absorbance of proteins depending upon the number of residues
Valine V (Val) Chemical Properties: Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Valine , an

Valine V (Val)

Chemical Properties:

Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group)

V (Val) Chemical Properties: Aliphatic (Aliphatic R-group) Physical Properties : Nonpolar Valine , an essential amino

Physical Properties:

Nonpolar

Valine, an essential amino acid, is hydrophobic, and as expected, is usually found in the interior of proteins.

Valine differs from threonine by replacement of the hydroxyl group with a methyl substituent. Valine is often referred to as one of the amino acids with hydrocarbon side chains, or as a branched chain amino acid.

Note that valine and threonine are of roughly the same shape and volume. It is difficult even in a high resolution structure of a protein to distinguish valine from threonine.

is difficult even in a high resolution structure of a protein to distinguish valine from threonine.

Differs from threonine

is difficult even in a high resolution structure of a protein to distinguish valine from threonine.
is difficult even in a high resolution structure of a protein to distinguish valine from threonine.
is difficult even in a high resolution structure of a protein to distinguish valine from threonine.