Carbohydrates and Monosaccharides

By the end of this lesson and the next few, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the role of carbohydrates in cells and in the extracellular materials of animals and plants
  • Explain the classifications of carbohydrates
  • List common monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides


Most people are familiar with carbohydrates, one type of macromolecule, especially when it comes to what we eat. To lose weight, some individuals adhere to “low-carb” diets. Athletes, in contrast, often “carb-load” before important competitions to ensure that they have enough energy to compete at a high level.


Image Attribution: WerbeFabrik / Pixabay (public domain)

Carbohydrates are, in fact, an essential part of our diet; grains, fruits, and vegetables are all natural sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide energy to the body, particularly through glucose, a simple sugar that is a component of starch and an ingredient in many staple foods. Carbohydrates also have other important functions in humans, animals, and plants.

Molecular Structures

We represent carbohydrates by the stoichiometric formula (CH2O)n, where n is the number of carbons in the molecule. In other words, the ratio of carbon to hydrogen to oxygen is 1:2:1 in carbohydrate molecules. This formula also explains the origin of the term “carbohydrate”. The components are carbon (“carbo”) and the components of water (hence, “hydrate”). Carbohydrates are classified into three subtypes: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.


Monosaccharides (mono- = “one”; sacchar- = “sweet”) are simple sugars, the most common of which is glucose. In monosaccharides, the number of carbons usually ranges from three to seven. Most monosaccharide names end with the suffix -ose.

Aldose, Ketose, Triose, Pentose and Hexose

If the sugar has an aldehyde group (the functional group with the structure R-CHO), it is known as an aldose. However, if it has a ketone group (the functional group with the structure RC(=O)R’), it is known as a ketose. Depending on the number of carbons in the sugar, they also may be known as trioses (three carbons), pentoses (five carbons), and or hexoses (six carbons). See the image below for an illustration of the monosaccharides.


We classify monosaccharides based on the position of their carbonyl group (C=O) and the number of carbons in the backbone. Aldoses have a carbonyl group (indicated in green) at the end of the carbon chain, and ketoses have a carbonyl group in the middle of the carbon chain. Trioses, pentoses, and hexoses have three, five, and six carbon backbones, respectively. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

Glucose, Galactose and Fructose

The chemical formula for glucose is C6H12O6. In humans, glucose is an important source of energy. During cellular respiration, energy is released from glucose, and that energy is used to help make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Plants synthesize glucose using carbon dioxide and water, and glucose in turn is used for energy requirements for the plant. Excess glucose is often stored as starch that is catabolized (the breakdown of larger molecules by cells) by humans and other animals that feed on plants.

Galactose (part of lactose, or milk sugar) and fructose (found in sucrose, in fruit) are other common monosaccharides. Although glucose, galactose, and fructose all have the same chemical formula (C6H12O6), they differ structurally and chemically (and are isomers) because of the different arrangement of functional groups around the asymmetric carbon. All of these monosaccharides have more than one asymmetric carbon (see image below).


Glucose, galactose, and fructose are all hexoses. They are structural isomers, meaning they have the same chemical formula (C6H12O6) but a different arrangement of atoms. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

Glucose, galactose, and fructose are isomeric monosaccharides (hexoses), meaning they have the same chemical formula but have slightly different structures. If you look at the image above, you will notice that glucose and galactose are aldoses, while fructose is a ketose.

Linear chain and ring-shaped molecules

Monosaccharides can exist as a linear chain or as ring-shaped molecules. In aqueous solutions, they usually occur in ring forms (see image below).


Five and six carbon monosaccharides exist in equilibrium between linear and ring forms. When the ring forms, the side chain it closes on locks into an α or β position. Fructose and ribose also form rings, although they form five-membered rings as opposed to the six-membered ring of glucose. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

Glucose in a ring form can have two different arrangements of the hydroxyl group (OH) around the anomeric carbon (carbon 1 that becomes asymmetric in the process of ring formation). If the hydroxyl group is below carbon number 1 in the sugar, we say it is in the alpha (α) position. Conversely, if it is above the plane, we say it is in the beta (β) position.

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This is a lesson from the tutorial, Biological Macromolecules and you are encouraged to log in or register, so that you can track your progress.

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