Polysaccharides are natural carbohydrate polymers containing from approximately 35 (usually more than 100) to as many as 60 000 monosaccharide units. Polysaccharides have a range of general structures (from linear to various branched structures) and shapes. They are structural components of cell walls of bacteria, fungi, algae and higher plants and of the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans, are energy‐ and carbon‐storage substances, or may serve various other functions as intra‐ or extracellular materials of plants, animals and microorganisms. They are the most abundant (by mass) of all organic substances in living organisms, comprising approximately two‐thirds of the dry weight of the total biomass. Some have commercial value as isolated substances.

Key Concepts:

  • Polysaccharides are polymers of sugar (carbohydrate) units.

  • Polysaccharides are ubiquitous in nature. They are present in all plant tissues.

  • Polysaccharides compose at least 75% of the dry weight of the total biomass.

  • Polysaccharides comprise approximately three‐fourths of the total biomass on the Earth.

  • Polysaccharides serve as structural materials, as reserve food materials, and in other functions.

  • Polysaccharide molecules may be linear or branched.

  • Polysaccharides occur in a wide range of shapes and sizes.

  • Polysaccharides are hydrophilic and either dissolve in or absorb water.

  • Polysaccharides are produced and used commercially in large volumes.

Keywords: polysaccharides; glycans; cell‐wall polysaccharides; energy‐storage polysaccharides; nomenclature of polysaccharides; sources of polysaccharides; structural analysis of polysaccharides; structures of polysaccharides

Figure 1.

Repeating unit structure of cellulose showing how the β‐d‐glucopyranosyl units are joined by (1→4) glycosidic linkages. The carbon and hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon atoms are omitted for clarity. The carbon atoms of each glycosyl unit are numbered, C1 being the anomeric carbon atom (the one on the extreme right of each unit in this structure), C2 being the carbon atom attached to C1, C3 being the next and so on to C6 in this case. The oxygen atoms attached to each carbon atom are numbered O1, O2, O3 and so on. A cellulose molecule will contain approximately 150–5000 of these repeating units. The right‐hand end (the reducing end) will be terminated in an –OH group, making the structure a hemiacetal (a potential aldehydo group) and that end the reducing end. The left‐hand end (the nonreducing end) will be terminated in a –H atom.

Figure 2.

Portions of polysaccharide molecules showing the different kinds of branching. Φ indicates the reducing end.



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Further Reading

BeMiller J and Whistler R (2009) Starch: Chemistry and Technology, 3rd edn. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Cui SW (ed.) (2005) Food Carbohydrates: Chemistry, Physical Properties, and Applications. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

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Walter RH (ed.) (1991) The Chemistry and Technology of Pectin. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Whistler RL , BeMiller JN and Paschall EF (1984) Starch: Chemistry and Technology, 2nd edn. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Yalpani M (1998) Polysaccharides. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Elsevier.

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BeMiller, James N(Jun 2014) Polysaccharides. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000693.pub3]