What is Chitin and Why is it So Cool?

What is Chitin and Why is it So Cool?

By Kaylyn Cade on Jul 12, 2019

What do crustaceans, arachnids, fungi, algae, and insects all have in common? Well, besides being rather small, these organisms all contain an amazing substance called chitin.

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What is Chitin?

Chitin is a naturally occurring biopolymer, which is a polymer created by an organism. After cellulose, the next most plentiful biopolymer in the entire world is chitin. Chitin behaves similarly to keratin.

Is Chitin a Protein?

Chitin is not a protein, but is similar to protein in that they are both polymers. Protein is made up of amino acids, while chitin is made up of amino sugars. So chitin wouldn't be considered a source of protein.

Still though, chitin acts somewhat similar to certain proteins. For example, Keratin is the protein in the human body that helps to form hair and nails. However, instead of creating hair or nails, chitin generates a hard outer shell or armor in organisms for protection. It’s main function in animals is primarily to hydrate and protect soft tissue. 

Eating chitin - good idea?

Chitin is more familiar than you may think. Likely, it has made an appearance on your dinner plate at some point. Foods like shrimp, lobster, mushrooms, and even insects all possess chitin.

When consumed, chitin is a fantastic source of insoluble fiber. In fact, chitin’s fiber provides prebiotic properties to the gut flora. This means that it aids in the growth of good bacteria in the body.

Likewise, some chitin derivatives have even been found to have antioxidant properties. By bonding to free radicals, chitin's byproducts can reduce oxidative stress in organisms protecting against cell injury and cancer. Chitin can even tether to lipid cholesterol, lowering blood cholesterol levels. Amazing!

Now although mammals cannot synthesize chitin, they carry enzymes similar to chitinase.

What is Chitinase?

Chitinase is sort of the opposite of chitin. Rather than building a protective covering, chitinase is an enzyme that breaks down chitin. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, plants, and mammals all hold a similar enzyme that hydrolyzes chitin.  Insects produce the most forms of chitinases, which they need during molting - the process of shedding their exoskeleton, which they do several times in their life.

The main function of chitinase in organisms is immunity defense, digestion, and arthropod molting. For instance, chitinase has an amazing ability to degrade chitin in fungal cell walls and insect exoskeletons. Therefore, chitinase is antimicrobial, antifungal, and essentially an insecticide.

What are the byproducts of Chitin?

Unsurprisingly, chitin is quite popular in the food industry. Apart from consumption, the biopolymer is a fantastic emulsifier and stabilizer in products.  Due to being antifungal, chitin also acts as a perfect edible preservation agent. 

Thankfully, certain forms of chitin have great flavors. In particular, microcrystalline chitin is used as a food additive for flavor enhancement. 

Chitin also has a  broad application within the medical field. For example, contact lenses, artificial skin, and even dissolvable surgical stitches are derived from some form of chitin.

If you have never eaten chitin, you may have still used it. Chitin is also a major component of fertilizers. It triggers an immune response in plants, stimulating growth.

Chitin is also extremely green. The biopolymer is biodegradable, biocompatible, and non toxic.  Several studies have even discovered that chitin can absorb pollutant metals from water. 

Chitin doesn’t harm planet Earth and even makes it a cleaner place!

Essentially, Chitin rocks.

From shrimp to plants, chitin and its derivatives provide protection and immunity defense to organisms. When consumed, chitin imparts pre-biotic and antioxidant properties. Chitin also has a hand at industries like food, agriculture, and medicine.

It’s valuable qualities establishes chitin as a unique and extremely sought after biopolymer. And once more research is done on chitin’s capabilities, it will be everywhere!

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