Cellulose in Plants: Function & Structure

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

All plants make the molecule cellulose. Not only is there more cellulose than any other organic molecule on Earth, but its unique structure lends itself to a wide variety of functions and products.

Building Blocks of Life

Plants may look very different on the outside, but if you take a closer look on the inside, all plants have some things in common. Plants are all made of polysaccharides, very large sugar molecules made of hundreds or thousands of single sugar units. Four common polysaccharides found in nature are starch, glycogen, chitin, and cellulose.


Cellulose is a very important polysaccharide because it is the most abundant organic compound on earth. Cellulose is a major component of tough cell walls that surround plant cells, and is what makes plant stems, leaves, and branches so strong. Next time you eat a salad, think about how much you have to chew it in order to be able to swallow all that plant material. It certainly takes a lot of work, and this is due in part to the structure of cellulose.

Imagine a bunch of long, thick ropes stuck together. This is very much what cellulose is like, but on a microscopic scale. Cellulose molecules are arranged parallel to each other, and are joined together with hydrogen bonds. This forms long, cable-like structures, which combine with other cellulose molecules, and is what produces such a strong support structure.



The rigid structure of cellulose is what allows plants to stand upright, and without the strength of cellulose, we wouldn't have lumber, paper, or cotton fabric. Because of its strength, cellulose is also used in a host of synthetic products such as carpeting, thickening agents in shampoo and suntan lotion, cosmetics, plastics (like your toothbrush handle), and other fabrics like rayon.

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