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2.25: Types of Amino Acids

There are 20 amino acids our body uses to synthesize proteins. These amino acids can be classified as essential, non-essential, or conditionally essential. The table below shows how the 20 amino acids are classified.

Table 2.251 Essential, conditionally essential, and nonessential amino acids1

Essential Conditionally Essential Non-essential 
Histidine Arginine Alanine
Isoleucine Cysteine Asparagine
Leucine Glutamine Aspartic Acid or Aspartate
Lysine Glycine Glutamic Acid or Glutamate
Methionine Proline Serine
Phenylalanine Tyrosone  

The body cannot synthesize nine amino acids. Thus, it is essential that these are consumed in the diet. As a result these amino acids are known as essential, or indispensable, amino acids. As an example of how amino acids were determined to be essential, Dr. William C. Rose at the University of Illinois discovered that threonine was essential by feeding different diets to graduate students at the university as described in the following link.

Web Link

Discovery of Threonine by William C. Rose


Non-essential, or dispensable, amino acids can be made in our body, so we do not need to consume them. Conditionally essential amino acids become essential for individuals in certain situations. An example of a condition when an amino acid becomes essential is the disease phenylketonuria (PKU). Individuals with PKU have a mutation in the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase, which normally adds an alcohol group (OH) to the amino acid phenylalanine to form tyrosine as shown below.

Figure 2.251 Phenylketonuria (PKU) results from a mutation in the enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase2,3

Since tyrosine cannot be synthesized by people with PKU, it becomes essential for them. Thus, tyrosine is a conditionally essential amino acid. Individuals with PKU have to eat a very low protein diet and avoid the alternative sweetener aspartame, because it can be broken down to phenylalanine. If individuals with PKU consume too much phenylalanine, phenylalanine and its metabolites, can build up and cause brain damage and severe mental retardation. The drug Kuvan was approved for use with PKU patients in 2007 who have low phenylalanine hydroxylase activity levels. You can learn more about this drug using the link below.

Web Link



References & Links

  1. Anonymous. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Protein and Amino Acids. Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. 2005


Discovery of Threonine by William C. Rose -

Kuvan -