Four biological macromolecules are constantly present and necessary for life: carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. These macromolecules have one thing in common: they are polymers made up of tiny identical monomers.

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Monomers Monomers

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Table of contents

    In the following, we will discuss what monomers are, how they form biological macromolecules, and what are other examples of monomers.

    What is a Monomer?

    Now, let's take a look at the definition of a monomer.

    Monomers are simple and identical building blocks that link together to form polymers.

    Figure 1 shows how monomers join together to form polymers.

    Monomers link up in repetitive subunits similar to a train: each car represents a monomer, while the whole train which consists of many identical cars linked to one another represents a polymer.

    Monomers and Biological Molecules

    Many biologically essential molecules are macromolecules. Macromolecules are large molecules that are typically produced through the polymerization of smaller molecules. Polymerization is a process where a large molecule called polymer is made through the combination of smaller units called monomers.

    Types of Monomers

    Biological macromolecules are composed primarily of six elements in varying quantities and arrangements. These elements are sulfur, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen.

    To form a polymer, monomers are linked together, and a water molecule is released as a by-product. Such a process is called dehydration synthesis.

    dehydration = loss of water; synthesis = the act of putting together

    On the other hand, polymers can be broken down by adding a water molecule. Such a process is called hydrolysis.

    There are four basic types of macromolecules that are made up of corresponding monomers:

    In this section, we will go through each of these macromolecules and their monomers. We will also cite some pertinent examples.

    Carbohydrates Consist Of Monosaccharides

    First up, we have carbohydrates.

    Carbohydrates are molecules that provide energy and structural support for living organisms. Carbohydrates are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen where the ratio of the elements is 1 carbon atom: 2 hydrogen atoms: 1 oxygen atom (1C : 2H : 1O)

    Carbohydrates are further subdivided into monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides based on the number of monomers contained in the macromolecule.

    • Monosaccharides are considered the monomers that make up carbohydrates. Examples of monosaccharides include glucose, galactose, and fructose.

    • Disaccharides are composed of two monosaccharides. Examples of disaccharides include lactose and sucrose. Lactose is produced through the combination of monosaccharides glucose and galactose. It is typically found in milk. Sucrose is produced through the combination of glucose and fructose. Sucrose is also a fancy way of saying table sugar.

    • Polysaccharides are composed of three or more monosaccharides. A polysaccharide chain can be made up of different types of monosaccharides.

    You can infer the number of monomers in a polymer by looking at the prefixes. Mono- means one; di- means two; and poly- means many. For example, disaccharides consist of two monosaccharides (monomers).

    Examples of polysaccharides include starch and glycogen.

    Starch is made up of glucose monomers. Excess glucose produced by plants is stored in various plant organs like roots and seeds. When seeds germinate they use the starch stored in seeds to provide a source of energy for the embryo. It is also a food source for animals (including us humans!).

    Like starch, glycogen is also made up of monomers of glucose. You can consider glycogen to be the equivalent of starch that animals store in liver and muscle cells to provide energy.

    Germination refers to the collection of active metabolic processes that lead to the emergence of a new seedling from a seed.

    Proteins Consist Of Amino Acids

    The second type of macromolecule is called protein.

    Proteins are biological macromolecules that perform a wide array of functions such as providing structural support and acting as enzymes that catalyze biological reactions.

    Proteins consist of monomers called amino acids. Amino acids are molecules made up of a carbon atom bonded to an amino group (NH2), a carboxyl group (-COOH), a hydrogen atom, and another atom or group referred to as the R group.

    There are 20 common amino acids, each having a different R group. Amino acids have varying chemistry (e.g., acidity, polarity, etc.) and structure (helices, zigzags, and other shapes). Variations in amino acids in protein sequences result in variation in the function and structure of proteins.

    A polypeptide is a long chain of amino acids attached to each other via peptide bonds.

    A peptide bond is a chemical bond produced between two molecules in which one of their carboxyl groups interacts with the other molecule's amino group, yielding a molecule of water as a by-product.

    Nucleic Acids Consist Of Nucleotides

    Next, we have nucleic acids.

    Nucleic acids are molecules that contain genetic information and instructions for cellular functions.

    The two main forms of nucleic acids are ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

    Nucleotides are the monomers that make up nucleic acids: when nucleotides join together, they create polynucleotide chains, which then form segments of biological macromolecules known as nucleic acids. Each nucleotide has three major components: a nitrogenous base, a pentose sugar, and a phosphate group.

    Nitrogenous bases are organic molecules with one or Two rings with nitrogen atoms. Both DNA and RNA contain four nitrogenous bases. Adenine, cytosine, and guanine can be found in both DNA and RNA. Thymine can be found only in DNA, while uracil can be found only in RNA.

    A pentose sugar is a molecule with five carbon atoms. There are two types of pentose sugar found in nucleotides: ribose in RNA and deoxyribose in DNA. What distinguishes deoxyribose from ribose is the lack of hydroxyl group (-OH) on its 2’ carbon (hence, it is called “deoxyribose”).

    Each nucleotide has one or more phosphate groups attached to the pentose sugar.


    Lastly, we have lipids. However, keep in mind that lipids are not considered "true polymers".

    Lipids are a group of nonpolar biological macromolecules that include fats, steroids, and phospholipids.

    Some lipids are made up of fatty acids and glycerol. Fatty acids are long hydrocarbon chains with a carboxyl group at one end. Fatty acids react with glycerol to form glycerides.

    • One fatty acid molecule attached to a glycerol molecule forms a monoglyceride.

    • Two fatty acid molecules attached to a glycerol molecule form a diglyceride.

    • Three fatty acid molecules attached to a glycerol molecule form a triglyceride, which are the main components of body fat in humans.

    Hold on, these prefixes (mono- and di-) sound very similar to what we discussed earlier in the section on carbohydrates. So, why are monosaccharides considered monomers, but not fatty acids and glycerol?

    While it is true that lipids are composed of smaller units (both fatty acids and glycerol), these units do not form repetitive chains. Notice that even though there is always one glycerol, the number of fatty acids changes. Thus, we can say that unlike polymers, lipids contain a chain of dissimilar, non-repeating units!

    Examples of Monomers

    There is a long list of monomers that can be used as examples to explain how monomers give way to polymers. Here are some examples of monomers that can help you understand how that process works:

    1. Amino acids, like glutamate, tryptophan or alanine. Amino acids are the monomers that build proteins. There are 20 different types of amino acids, each with a unique chemical structure and side chain. Amino acids can bond together through peptide bonds to form polypeptide chains, which then fold into functional proteins.

    2. Nucleotides (adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and uracil (U)): nucleotides are the monomers that make up nucleic acids, including DNA and RNA. A nucleotide consists of a sugar molecule, a phosphate group, and a nitrogenous base. Nucleotides can join together through phosphodiester bonds to form a single strand of DNA or RNA.

    3. Monosaccharides: monosaccharides are the monomers that build carbohydrates, including sugars, starches, and cellulose. Monosaccharides are simple sugars that consist of a single ring of carbon atoms, with hydrogen and oxygen atoms attached. Glucose, fructose, and galactose are all examples of monosaccharides. Monosaccharides can join together through glycosidic bonds to form more complex carbohydrates.

    Difference Between Monomers and Polymers

    A monomer is a single unit of an organic molecule that when linked with other monomers can produce a polymer. This means that polymers are more complex molecules compared to monomers. A polymer consists of an unspecified number of monomers. Figure 2 below shows how monomers form polymer macromolecules.


    Polymers / biological macromolecules



    Amino acids



    Nucleic acids

    Table 1. This table shows the polymer biological macromolecules and their corresponding monomers.

    It is also important to note that not all polymers are biological molecules. Humans have been creating and using artificial polymers since the 20th century.

    Examples of Artificial Polymers and their Monomers

    Artificial polymers are materials created by humans by linking monomers. We’ll discuss two examples of popular artificial polymers: polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride.


    Polyethylene is a flexible, crystalline, and translucent material. You would see it used in packaging, containers, toys, and even wires. In fact, it is the most commonly used plastic today. Polyethylene is an artificial polymer made up of ethylene monomers. One polyethylene chain can have as many as 10,000 monomer units!

    Polyvinyl chloride

    Another commonly used artificial polymer is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It is a material that is rigid and does not easily catch fire so it is used in pipes and coverings for windows and doors. As its name implies, polyvinyl chloride is a polymer made up of vinyl chloride monomers. Vinyl chloride is a gas produced by passing oxygen, hydrogen chloride and ethylene through copper which functions as a catalyst.

    A catalyst is any substance that triggers or speeds up a chemical reaction without being consumed or altered in the process.

    Monomers - Key takeaways

    • Monomers are simple and identical building blocks that link together to form polymers.
    • To form a polymer, monomers are linked together, and a water molecule is released as a by-product. Such a process is called dehydration synthesis.
    • Polymers can be broken down into monomers by adding a water molecule. Such a process is called hydrolysis.
    • The main types of monomers are monosaccharides, amino acids, and nucleotides that make up complex carbohydrates, proteins, and nucleic acids, respectively.
    • Humans have been using various monomers to create artificial polymers like polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride.


    1. Zedalis, Julianne, et al. Advanced Placement Biology for AP Courses Textbook. Texas Education Agency.
    2. Blamire, John. “ The Giant Molecules of Life: Monomers and Polymers.” Science at a Distance,
    Frequently Asked Questions about Monomers

    What is a monomer?

    Monomers are simple and identical building blocks that link together to form polymers.  

    What are the 4 types of monomers?

    The 4 types of essential biological macromolecules are carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. Carbohydrates consist of monosaccharides, proteins consist of amino acids, and nucleic acids consist of nucleotides. Lipids are not considered polymers because they are made up of one glycerol and varying amounts o fatty acids molecules.

    What are monomers used for?

    Monomers are used to create polymers.

    What are the monomers of proteins?

    Amino acids are the monomers of proteins.

    What is the difference between a monomer and a polymer?

    The difference between a monomer and a polymer is that a monomer is a single unit of an organic molecule that when linked with other monomers can produce a polymer. This means that polymers are more complex molecules compared to monomers. A polymer consists of an unspecified number of monomers.  

    Is starch made from amino acid monomers?

    No, starch is not made of amino acid monomers. It is made of carbohydrate or sugar monomers, specifically glucose.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How are monomers linked to create a polymer?

    How are polymers broken down into monomers?

    What monomers form carbohydrates?


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