Proteolysis is a process where proteins are broken down into smaller components by proteases, enzymes specializing in cleaving proteins at specific points in their structures. This process takes place throughout the body for a variety of purposes, ranging from regular maintenance of cells to digestion of food into components the body can use for cellular processes. Proteolysis can also be a part of some disease processes, as for example when someone is bitten by a snake and the venom causes tissue death by breaking down proteins. In laboratory settings, researchers take advantage of proteases to slice proteins into specific components for further analysis and use.
In proteolysis, the enzymes attack the protein, clipping it into smaller peptides. They can keep going to deconstruct the protein even further, into the component amino acids. A series of chemical reactions take place as the enzymes latch on to parts of the protein and sever the bonds keeping the protein together. The protein changes structure through this process as its chemical composition changes in response to the enzymes.
A classic example of proteolysis occurs in the intestines, where digestive enzymes clip apart the proteins in food so the body can metabolize them. The component parts of the proteins are carried throughout the body to provide nutrition for cells and catalyze other chemical reactions in the body. Proteolysis also plays a role in activating precursor proteins and mediating biological processes. People with enzyme deficiencies can develop malnutrition and other problems as a result of being unable to break down and use certain protein chains in the body.
When a protein is broken apart, the simpler components are more usable and they also tend to be more soluble, making it easier to transport them to different locations. The peptides and amino acids can be utilized by organs like the liver to build new proteins or may be transported out of the body in feces and urine if they are not necessary, or if an ongoing disease process is causing a breakdown in the patient's metabolism.
In laboratory settings, proteolysis can be useful for many different kinds of research. People can use enzymes to treat samples, separating out useful components or materials of interest. They can also isolate specific peptides and amino acids with the assistance of enzyme baths. Medical testing sometimes relies on teasing proteins apart to learn more about their structure. Snipping proteins apart can also allow researchers to construct new proteins, including compounds with potential medical applications.