Structure of the chitin molecule, showing two of the N-acetylglucosamine units that repeat to form long chains in β-1,4 linkage.

Chitin (C8H13O5N)n (play /ˈktɨn/) is a long-chain polymer of a N-acetylglucosamine, a derivative of glucose, and is found in many places throughout the natural world. It is the main component of the cell walls of fungi, the exoskeletons of arthropods such as crustaceans (e.g., crabs, lobsters and shrimps) and insects, the radulas of mollusks, and the beaks of cephalopods, including squid and octopuses. In terms of structure, chitin may be compared to the polysaccharide cellulose and, in terms of function, to the protein keratin. Chitin has also proven useful for several medical and industrial purposes.

The structure of chitin was solved by Albert Hofmann for which he received his doctorate.



The English word "chitin" comes from the French word chitine, which first appeared in 1836. These words were derived from the Greek word chitōn, meaning mollusk, that is, influenced by the Greek word khitōn, meaning "tunic" or "frock". That word may come from the Central Semitic word *kittan, the Akkadian words kitû or kita’um, meaning flax or linen, and the Sumerian word gada or gida.[1]

A similar word, "chiton", refers to a marine animal with a protective shell (also known as a "sea cradle").

Chemistry, physical properties and biological function

Chitin is a modified polysaccharide that contains nitrogen; it is synthesized from units of N-acetylglucosamine (to be precise, 2-(acetylamino)-2-deoxy-D-glucose). These units form covalent β-1,4 linkages (similar to the linkages between glucose units forming cellulose). Therefore, chitin may be described as cellulose with one hydroxyl group on each monomer substituted with an acetyl amine group. This allows for increased hydrogen bonding between adjacent polymers, giving the chitin-polymer matrix increased strength.

A cicada sheds its chitinous exoskeleton.

In its unmodified form, chitin is translucent, pliable, resilient, and quite tough. In arthropods, however, it is often modified, becoming embedded in sclerotin, a tanned proteinaceous matrix, which forms much of the exoskeleton. In its pure form, chitin is leathery, but in most invertebrates it occurs largely as a component of composite materials. Combined with say, calcium carbonate, as in the shells of Crustacea, it produces a much stronger composite, harder and stiffer than pure chitin, tougher than the mineral substance alone.[2] Another difference between pure and composite forms can be seen by comparing the flexible body wall between the segments of a caterpillar (mainly chitin) to the stiff, light elytron of a beetle (containing a large proportion of sclerotin).[3]

Fossil record

Chitin was present in the exoskeletons of Cambrian arthropods such as trilobites. The oldest preserved chitin dates to the Oligocene, about 25 million years ago.[4]



Most recent studies point out that chitin is a good inducer for defense mechanisms in plants.[5] It has also been assessed as a fertilizer that can improve overall crop yields.[6] The EPA regulates chitin for agricultural use within the USA.[7] Chitosan is prepared from chitin by deacetylation.


Chitin is used in industry in many processes. It is used as an additive to thicken and stabilize foods and pharmaceuticals. It also acts as a binder in dyes, fabrics, and adhesives. Industrial separation membranes and ion-exchange resins can be made from chitin. Processes to size and strengthen paper employ chitin.[citation needed]


Chitin's properties as a flexible and strong material make it favorable as surgical thread. Its biodegradibility means it wears away with time as the wound heals. Moreover, chitin has some unusual properties that accelerate healing of wounds in humans.[8]

Occupations associated with high environmental chitin levels, such as shellfish processors, are prone to high incidences of asthma. Recent studies have suggested that chitin may play a role in a possible pathway in human allergic disease. To be specific, mice treated with chitin develop an allergic response, characterized by a build-up of interleukin-4, expressing innate immune cells. In these treated mice, additional treatment with a chitinase enzyme abolishes the response.[9]

See also


  1. ^ American Heritage dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. entry for chiton
  2. ^ Campbell, N. A. (1996) Biology (4th edition) Benjamin Cummings, New Work. p.69 ISBN 0-8053-1957-3
  3. ^ Gilbert, Lawrence I. (2009). Insect development : morphogenesis, molting and metamorphosis. Amsterdam Boston: Elsevier/Academic Press. ISBN 9780123751362. 
  4. ^ Briggs, DEG (29 January 1999). "Molecular taphonomy of animal and plant cuticles: selective preservation and diagenesis". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 354 (1379): 7–17. doi:10.1098/rstb.1999.0356. PMC 1692454. 
  5. ^ "Linden, J., Stoner, R., Knutson, K. Gardner-Hughes, C. “Organic Disease Control Elicitors”. Agro Food Industry Hi-Te (p12-15 Oct 2000)". 
  6. ^ "Chitosan derived from chitin, Chitosan Natural Biocontrol for Agricutlural & Horticultural use". 
  7. ^ "EPA: Chitin; Poly-N-acetyl-D-glucosamine (128991) Fact Sheet". 
  8. ^ Bhuvanesh Gupta,Abha Arorab,Shalini Saxenaa and Mohammad Sarwar Alam (July 2008). "Preparation of chitosan–polyethylene glycol coated cotton membranes for wound dressings: preparation and characterization". Polymers for Advanced Technologies 20: 58–65. doi:10.1002/pat.1280. </
  9. ^ Tiffany A. Reese, Hong-Erh Liang, Andrew M. Tager, Andrew D. Luster, Nico Van Rooijen, David Voehringer & Richard M. Locksley (3 May 2007). "Chitin induces accumulation in tissue of innate immune cells associated with allergy". Nature 447 (7140): 92–96. doi:10.1038/nature05746. PMC 2527589. PMID 17450126. 
  • Martín-Gil FJ, Leal JA, Gómez-Miranda B, Martín-Gil J, Prieto A, Ramos-Sánchez MC. "Low temperature thermal behaviour of chitins and chitin-glucans". Thermochim. Acta, 1992, vol. 211, pp. 241–254.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Chitin — Chi tin, n. [See {Chiton}.] (Chem.) A white amorphous horny substance forming the harder part of the outer integument of insects, crustacea, and various other invertebrates; entomolin. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • chitin — chitin. См. хитин. (Источник: «Англо русский толковый словарь генетических терминов». Арефьев В.А., Лисовенко Л.А., Москва: Изд во ВНИРО, 1995 г.) …   Молекулярная биология и генетика. Толковый словарь.

  • Chitīn — (Chem.), ein von Odier in den harten Theilen der Insecten, bes. den Flügeldecken der Käfer, unterschiedener eigener Stoff, der Hornsubstanz ähnlich, ist in Kali unauflöslich, wird in Schwefelsäure nicht gelb, verliert verkohlt die Form des Organs …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Chitīn — (Entomaderm) C18H30N2O12, die stickstoffhaltige Substanz, welche die häutigen und härtern Teile der Organe von Würmern, Krebsen, Spinnen, Insekten bildet, häufig innig verbunden mit andern Stoffen, z. B. mit kohlensaurem Kalk im Panzer der Krebse …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Chitin — Chitīn, der bei den Gliedertieren die häutigen und härtern Teile bildende Stoff, z.B. in den Krebsschalen, Flügeldecken der Maikäfer etc …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Chitin — Chitin, unverzweigtes kettenförmiges Kohlenhydrat aus der Gruppe der ⇒ Polysaccharide, besteht aus β 1,4 glykosidisch verknüpften N Acetylglucosamin Einheiten, dient als Zellwandsubstanz, v. a. bei Pilzen; ist Hauptbestandteil des Exoskeletts der …   Deutsch wörterbuch der biologie

  • chitin — 1836, from Fr. chitine, from Gk. khiton frock, tunic, of soldiers, coat of mail, used metaphorically for any coat or covering. Probably an Oriental word [Liddell & Scott] …   Etymology dictionary

  • chitin — ► NOUN Biochemistry ▪ a fibrous substance which forms the exoskeleton of arthropods and the cell walls of fungi. DERIVATIVES chitinous adjective. ORIGIN Greek khit n (see CHITON(Cf. ↑C)) …   English terms dictionary

  • chitin — [kī′tin] n. [Fr chitine < Gr chitōn: see CHITON] a tough, horny polysaccharide, (C8H13NO5) n, secreted by the epidermis and forming the main bulk of the outer covering of insects, crustaceans, etc. chitinous [kī′tinəs] adj …   English World dictionary

  • Chitin — Strukturformel Allgemeines Name Chitin CAS Nummer 1398 61 4 …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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