Starch vs. Cellulose: Structure & Function

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  • 0:01 What Are Starch & Cellulose?
  • 0:36 Glucose Structure
  • 1:42 Starch vs. Cellulose:…
  • 3:39 Cellulose vs. Starch: Function
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Darla Reed

Darla has taught undergraduate Enzyme Kinetics and has a doctorate in Basic Medical Science

Expert Contributor
Christianlly Cena

Christianlly has taught college physics and facilitated laboratory courses. He has a master's degree in Physics and is pursuing his doctorate study.

In this lesson, you will discover what starch and cellulose are. You will also learn the difference between them and how that difference affects their individual functions.

What Are Starch and Cellulose?

What is the difference between the graphite in your pencil and a diamond? They're both composed of the same element, so why is one so strong and valuable and the other flaky and a dime-a-dozen? The answer is, their structure.

Like graphite and diamonds, starch and cellulose are also composed of the same substance but with different structures. Both starch and cellulose are polysaccharides; that is, both molecules are made up of a lot of sugar molecules. In particular, starch and cellulose are made of the sugar molecule glucose.

Glucose Structure

To understand the difference between starch and cellulose structure, it's important to know glucose structures since glucose is what starch and cellulose have in common.

Glucose is a type of sugar made of carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O). These elements form a ring with one of the carbons sticking off the end, kind of like a ball of yarn with an unraveled string. There are also alcohol (OH) groups attached to the carbons. There are six carbons numbered from 1 to 6, with the 'unraveled string' hanging off taking the 6th position.

Glucose is a 3-D molecule; this means the attached elements can be pointed in different directions at any given time. There are two main forms of glucose: alpha and beta. In alpha glucose, the alcohol attached to carbon 1 is down. In the beta glucose, the alcohol attached to carbon 1 is up.

When one molecule of glucose joins with another, the two alcohols attached to the carbons combine, causing the new molecule to kick away water and share oxygen. A common way the molecules are linked is for carbon 1 on one glucose to share oxygen with carbon 4 on another.

Starch vs. Cellulose: Structure

The structure formed when the molecules share oxygen is determined by which form of glucose is linked together. Starch contains alpha glucose, while cellulose is made of beta glucose. This difference may seem minor, but it plays a big role in the 3-D shape of the molecule. Think of a pile of wood that can be put together in different ways. If you put the wood together in one way, it makes a doghouse; put together another way, it becomes a bookcase. In the same way, starch and cellulose have different 3-D structures.

It takes anywhere from 250 to over 1,000 glucose molecules to make a single starch molecule. In alpha glucose, the OH on carbon 1 and 4 are facing the same way. This means it can link in a straight chain or branch off, like people standing next to each other all facing the same way. Because starch can be straight and faces the same way, it can roll itself up in a helical structure, kind of like rolling up a piece of paper so it takes less space. If the alpha glucose of a starch branches off, the structure is more like paper that's folded up to make origami.

Cellulose, on the other hand, is composed of about 500 glucose molecules in the beta form. Because the OH of carbon 1 and carbon 4 are in a different place, the molecules are flip-flopped when connected, like people standing next to each other with one facing forward while the other faces the opposite direction. This pattern allows for hydrogen bonding between two molecules of cellulose.

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Additional Activities

Crossword Puzzle on Starch and Cellulose


This crossword puzzle is based on the lesson on the comparison between starch and cellulose in terms of their structure and function. For this activity, complete the crossword by filling in a word that fits each of the given clues. To do this, you can just right click the crossword given below to save the image and print it. With a pencil and an eraser, neatly write your answers in the boxes provided.


3. A monomer that is made of a carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.

5. The distinct characteristics (such appearance and durability) of materials made up of the same substance depends on their _____

6. A main form of glucose where the OH-group attached to carbon 1 is oriented upward.

7. The most important source of carbohydrates in the human diet as well as for plants and animals.

8. Two molecules of cellulose usually link together due to _____ bonding.

10. This is referred to as the structural component of plant cell walls and is the most abundant type of carbohydrate.


1. These are long chains of carbohydrate molecules made of simple sugars.

2. The glucose molecules that make up starch is _____ than that of cellulose.

4. Starch can align into straight chains and even roll itself into a _____ structure.

9. A type of cellulose which is completely insoluble in water and have considerable mechanical strength.

Answer Key

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