Lipids—chiefly fats, phospholipids, and steroids—are major structural components of the human body. Fats provide an energy reserve for the body, and fat pads also serve as insulation and shock absorbers. Phospholipids and the steroid compound cholesterol are major components of the membrane that surrounds each cell.
Proteins also serve as a major structural component of the body. Like lipids, proteins are an important constituent of the cell membrane. In addition, such extracellular materials as hair and nails are composed of protein. So also is collagen, the fibrous, elastic material that makes up much of the body’s skin, bones, tendons, and ligaments. Proteins also perform numerous functional roles in the body. Particularly important are cellular proteins called enzymes, which catalyze the chemical reactions necessary for life.
Carbohydrates are present in the human body largely as fuels, either as simple sugars circulating through the bloodstream or as glycogen, a storage compound found in the liver and the muscles. Small amounts of carbohydrates also occur in cell membranes, but, in contrast to plants and many invertebrate animals, humans have little structural carbohydrate in their bodies.
Nucleic acids make up the genetic materials of the body. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) carries the body’s hereditary master code, the instructions according to which each cell operates. It is DNA, passed from parents to offspring, that dictates the inherited characteristics of each individual human. Ribonucleic acid (RNA), of which there are several types, helps carry out the instructions encoded in the DNA.