What Is Chitin?

Have you ever wondered how beetles and crabs get their shells? Read here to learn all about chitin.

Chitin is a polymer that can be found in anything from the shells of beetles to webs of spiders. It is present all around us, in plant and animal creatures. It is sometimes considered to be a spinoff of cellulose, because the two are very molecularly similar. Cellulose contains a hydroxy group, and chitin contains acetamide. Chitin is unusual because it is a "natural polymer," or a combination of elements that exists naturally on earth. Usually, polymers are man-made. Crabs, beetles, worms and mushrooms contain large amount of chitin.

Chitin is a very adaptive material for a creature. Insects and animals with chitin coats usually shed these coats, or molt, at least once a year. Chitin is a very firm material, and it help protect an insect against harm and pressure. Depending on its thickness, chitin can be rigid or yielding. Often, insect coats contain thick, stiff layers of chitin. The areas around legs and face contain very thin, pliable layers.

In addition to being a naturally-occurring molecule, chitin is also notable for the process in which it is broken down. Because many sea creatures shed shells of this material every year, one would expect the ocean to be full of chitin. This is not so. There are tiny bacteria in the ocean that can sense small chains of sugars sent from a discarded chitin shell. Once these bacteria (Vibrio furnisii) have determined that they have found a shell, they begin to create enzymes that can be used to break down the shell. In a series of nine steps, these bacteria reduce chitin to chains of simple sugars and ammonia. The implications that this holds are great. Using this process, scientists may be able to trigger breakdown and responses in other materials besides chitin. They may also be able to trigger an immune responses in plants, using the molecules that chitin releases when shed.

A spinoff of chitin that has been discovered by the market is chitosan. This is a man-made molecule that is often used to dye shirts and jeans in the clothing industry. Chitosan is formed by a process called "N-deacylation." Chitosan can be used within the human body to regulate diet programs, and researchers are looking into ways in which it can sure diseases. Chitin and Chitosan are only slightly different on a molecular level. Chitosan contains an amine group, or a group without carbons bonded to oxygen, whereas chitin contains an amide group, where this is the case.

Chitin itself is the subject of exciting medical experiments. When applied to human wounds and surgical cloths, it accelerates the skin healing process. An acidic mixture of chitin, when applied to burns, also accelerates the healing process. Left on for a few days, it can heal a third-degree bun completely. It has been shown to support the immune system during certain kinds of illness-blocking procedures. Chitosan, chitin's spinoff, has been known to aid plants' immune systems while they are growing. When placed on a seed, it induces protective measured within the growing plant.

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