Amino acids

Amino acids are basic constituents of living matter because they are the building blocks of protein and are essential for all forms of life. Proteins consist of many amino acids joined into long chains (some proteins have as few as 40 amino acids, others have more than 10,000 amino acids).

DNA and RNA are complex spirals made up of amino acids in series. The order in which the amino acids are stacked in the DNA in the genes determines an organism's genetic makeup and as a result how the organism turns out, once the environment takes its effects.

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Amino acids are organic compounds containing an amine group (NH2) and a carboxyl group (COOH). A very simple example is glycine which is CH2NHCOOH. Hundreds of amino acids have been discovered so far.

The characteristics of different amino acids are the result of additional carbon molecules and of differences in the length and composition of the side molecules or chains attached to them.

Various proteins are essential for life. To create the proteins needed for its existence, an organism needs to have all the amino acids that make up that protein. If any is missing, that protein cannot be made. Animals, plants and microbes such as bacteria can make (synthesize) various amino acids.

The need for an amino acids varies

Humans, pigs, poultry etc are monogastrics or non-ruminant animals and cannot make certain amino acids that are essential for the proteins they need. These are called the Essential amino acids, not because they are any more essential than any others, but because they are essential in the diet because the organism cannot make them itself.

The only way to get them is in the diet as amino acids or combined into proteins that can then be split to release them.

Meat, milk and eggs contain biologically adequate proteins with all the essential amino acids for humans and many other animals.

Different plants have different mixes of amino acids and the mix varies from one part of the plant to the next (root to seed) as well as from one stage to another (early growth to maturity). As a result, various plants in the diet lack certain amino acids. So a vegetarian animal (including a vegetarian human) needs to eat a suitable mix of plant products or eat a plant that contains a complete amino acid profile for that species.

For example, soy beans have the full set of amino acids needed by humans.

Ruminants (animals with multiple "stomachs") can make all the amino acids they need
High demand on an organism (such as stress, disease, high production, pregnancy etc) may lead to a need for more of one or more amino acids to make specific proteins.

Particular amino acids are important in certain farming enterprises. For example in farming hens for eggs, higher levels of lysine and methionine are essential for high egg production. On conventional farms these are often supplied by meat meal or artificial amino acids.

It is harder for an organic egg farmer because organic farming does not allow the use of artificial amino acids. And, under some organic standards, the intake of meat meal is restricted to just a few percent of the supplied feed.

The domestic bird evolved from an omnivore (animal that eats meat and vegetable matter) that was exposed to lots of protein in the form of insects and small animals on the forest floor. The commercial bird used on most farms today is based on the same genetic stock whether it is kept in a shed, in a cage, on the range or run on an organic range. She is a high producer of protein in the egg white. So a few per cent meat meal is insufficient protein for her to produce to her capacity of more than 300 eggs in a laying season.

An organic egg farmer needs to find sources of feed that are high in lysine and methionine if they wish to have high egg production. So, organic egg farmers use one or more of:

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This page was updated on December 27, 2007