Endocrine Index Glossary

The Structure of Insulin

Insulin is composed of two peptide chains referred to as the A chain and B chain. A and B chains are linked together by two disulfide bonds, and an additional disulfide is formed within the A chain. In most species, the A chain consists of 21 amino acids and the B chain of 30 amino acids.

The molecule viewer below can be used to examine the structure of bovine insulin. Setting the Color parameter to "Chain" will color the A chain green and the B chain red.

Sorry: This molecule viewer will not be visible because your browser does not support Java applets

Although the amino acid sequence of insulin varies among species, certain segments of the molecule are highly conserved, including the positions of the three disulfide bonds, both ends of the A chain and the C-terminal residues of the B chain. These similarities in the amino acid sequence of insulin lead to a three dimensional conformation of insulin that is very similar among species, and insulin from one animal is very likely biologically active in other species. Indeed, pig insulin has been widely used to treat human patients.

Insulin molecules have a tendency to form dimers in solution due to hydrogen-bonding between the C-termini of B chains. Additionally, in the presence of zinc ions, insulin dimers associate into hexamers.

These interactions have important clinical ramifications. Monomers and dimers readily diffuse into blood, whereas hexamers diffuse poorly. Hence, absorption of insulin preparations containing a high proportion of hexamers is delayed and somewhat slow. This phenomenon, among others, has stimulated development of a number of recombinant insulin analogs. The first of these molecules to be marketed - called insulin lispro - is engineered such that lysine and proline residues on the C-terminal end of the B chain are reversed; this modification does not alter receptor binding, but minimizes the tendency to form dimers and hexamers.

Index of: The Endocrine Pancreas
Insulin Synthesis and Secretion

Last updated on June 30, 1999
Author: R. Bowen
Send comments via form or email to rbowen@colostate.edu