Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

In this section, you will explore the following questions:

  • How are complex macromolecule polymers synthesized from monomers?
  • What is the difference between dehydration (or condensation) and hydrolysis reactions?

Connection for AP® Courses

Connection for AP® Courses

Living organisms need food to survive as it contains critical nutrients in the form of biological macromolecules. These large molecules are composed mainly of six elements—sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen (SPONCH)—in different quantities and arrangements. Complex polymers are built from combinations of smaller monomers by dehydration synthesis, a chemical reaction in which a molecule of water is removed between two linking monomers. (Think of a train: Each boxcar, including the caboose, represents a monomer, and the entire train is a polymer.) During digestion, polymers can be broken down by hydrolysis, or the addition of water. Both dehydration and hydrolysis reactions in cells are catalyzed by specific enzymes. Dehydration reactions typically require an investment of energy for new bond formation, whereas hydrolysis reactions typically release energy that can be used to power cellular processes. The four categories of macromolecules are carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. Evidence supports scientists’ claim that the organic precursors of these biological molecules were present on primitive Earth.

Information presented and the examples highlighted in the section support concepts and Learning Objectives outlined in Big Idea 1 of the AP® Biology Curriculum Framework. The Learning Objectives listed in the Curriculum Framework provide a transparent foundation for the AP® Biology course, an inquiry-based laboratory experience, instructional activities, and AP® Exam questions. A learning objective merges required content with one or more of the seven Science Practices.

Big Idea 1 The process of evolution drives the diversity and unity of life.
Enduring Understanding 1.D The origin of living systems is explained by natural processes.
Essential Knowledge 1.D.1 There are several hypotheses about the natural origin of life on Earth, each with supporting scientific evidence.
Science Practice 1.2 The student can make claims and predictions about natural phenomena based on scientific theories and models.
Learning Objective 1.27 The student is able to describe a scientific hypothesis about the origin of life on Earth.
Science Practice 3.3 The student can evaluate scientific questions.
Learning Objective 1.28 The student is able to evaluate scientific questions based on hypotheses about the origin of life on Earth.

In addition, content from this chapter is addressed in the AP® Biology Laboratory Manual in the following lab(s):

  • Macromolecules in Common Food

Dehydration Synthesis

Dehydration Synthesis

As you’ve learned, biological macromolecules are large molecules, necessary for life, that are built from smaller organic molecules. There are four major classes of biological macromolecules: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. Each of these macromolecules is an important cell component and performs a wide array of functions. Combined, these molecules make up the majority of a cell’s dry mass—recall that water makes up the majority of its complete mass. Biological macromolecules are organic, meaning they contain carbon. In addition, they may contain hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and additional minor elements.

Most macromolecules are made from single subunits, or building blocks, called monomers. The monomers combine with each other using covalent bonds to form larger molecules known as polymers. In doing so, monomers release water molecules as byproducts. This type of reaction is known as dehydration synthesis, which means to put together while losing water.

Shown is the reaction of two glucose monomers to form maltose. When maltose is formed, a water molecules is released.
Figure 3.2 In the dehydration synthesis reaction depicted above, two molecules of glucose are linked together to form the disaccharide maltose. In the process, a water molecule is formed.

In a dehydration synthesis reaction (Figure 3.2), the hydrogen of one monomer combines with the hydroxyl group of another monomer, releasing a molecule of water. At the same time, the monomers share electrons and form covalent bonds. As additional monomers join, this chain of repeating monomers forms a polymer. Different types of monomers can combine in many configurations, giving rise to a diverse group of macromolecules. Even one kind of monomer can combine in a variety of ways to form several different polymers; for example, glucose monomers are the constituents of starch, glycogen, and cellulose.



Polymers are broken down into monomers in a process known as hydrolysis, which means to split with water. Hydrolysis is a reaction in which a water molecule is used during the breakdown of another compound (Figure 3.3). During these reactions, the polymer is broken into two components: One part gains a hydrogen atom (H+) and the other gains a hydroxyl molecule (OH–) from a split water molecule.

Shown is the breakdown of maltose to form two glucose monomers. Water is a reactant.
Figure 3.3 In the hydrolysis reaction shown here, the disaccharide maltose is broken down to form two glucose monomers with the addition of a water molecule. Note that this reaction is the reverse of the synthesis reaction shown in Figure 3.2.

Dehydration and hydrolysis reactions are catalyzed, or sped up, by specific enzymes: Dehydration reactions involve the formation of new bonds, requiring energy, while hydrolysis reactions break bonds and release energy. These reactions are similar for most macromolecules, but each monomer and polymer reaction is specific for its class. For example, in our bodies, food is hydrolyzed, or broken down, into smaller molecules by catalytic enzymes in the digestive system. This allows for easy absorption of nutrients by cells in the intestine. Each macromolecule is broken down by a specific enzyme. For instance, carbohydrates are broken down by amylase, sucrase, lactase, or maltase. Proteins are broken down by the enzymes pepsin and peptidase, and by hydrochloric acid. Lipids are broken down by lipases. Breakdown of these macromolecules provides energy for cellular activities.

Link to Learning

QR Code representing a URL

Visit this site to see visual representations of dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis.

What role do electrons play in dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis?
  1. Sharing of electrons between monomers occurs in both dehydration synthesis and hydrolysis.
  2. The sharing of electrons between monomers occurs in hydrolysis only.
  3. H + and OH ions share electrons with the respective monomers in dehydration synthesis.
  4. H + and OH ions share electrons with the respective monomers in hydrolysis.

Everyday Connection for AP® Courses

Recreating Primordial Earth

Many people wonder how life formed on Earth. In 1953, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey developed an apparatus like the one shown in Figure 3.4 to model early conditions on Earth. They wanted to test if organic molecules could form from inorganic precursors believed to exist very early in Earth’s history. They used boiling water to mimic early Earth’s oceans. Steam from the ocean combined with methane, ammonia, and hydrogen gases from the early Earth’s atmosphere and was exposed to electrical sparks to act as lightning. As the gas mixture cooled and condensed, it was found to contain organic compounds, such as amino acids and nucleotides. According to the abiogenesis theory, these organic molecules came together to form the earliest form of life about 3.5 billion years ago. (credit: Yassine Mrabet)

A sealed glassware laboratory setup creates conditions needed to produce organic compounds from inorganic precursors. Water is heated in a flask, and the steam is allowed to rise through a glass tube to a globe containing methane, ammonia and hydrogen gas, and where electrodes produce an electric spark. The gaseous mixture falls through a condenser, where it cools and becomes liquid. The cooled liquid is collected in a trap, where a sampling probe is inserted.
Figure 3.4

Science Practice Connection for AP® Courses

Think About It

How does Stanley Miller’s and Harold Urey’s model support the claim that organic precursors present on early Earth could have assembled into large, complex molecules necessary for life? What chemical ingredients were present on early Earth?


This section may include links to websites that contain links to articles on unrelated topics.  See the preface for more information.