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Types of Natural Polymers & Examples

Tanya Hausman, Roger Harris
  • Author
    Tanya Hausman

    Tanya has taught for 21 years, anywhere from 1st through 9th grades, as well as STEM. She has a bachelor's in elementary education with a middle school math endorsement from Oklahoma Wesleyan University. She has a current professional teaching license and years of experience creating interesting, engaging lessons for her students.

  • Instructor
    Roger Harris
Learn about natural polymers. Understand what natural polymers are, explore their types, and discover some important natural polymers examples in everyday life. Updated: 03/22/2022

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Natural Polymers

Polymers are found everywhere, from plastic water bottles to nylon, and from keratin in hair and fingernails to strands of DNA. A polymer is a chemical compound whose molecules are bonded together in a repeating chain. Polymer comes from two Greek words meaning "many parts." Those "many parts" are called monomers, the units that create polymers. They are formed through the process of polymerization, where monomers bond together to form chains.

Polymers can be man-made, called synthetic, or they can be natural. But what is a natural polymer? As the name implies, a natural polymer is found in nature; plants and animals. The monomers that makeup naturally occurring polymers are organic molecules, which often include carbon, the element that is in all living things.

Natural versus Synthetic Polymers

There are differences between synthetic and natural polymers. The table shows some of the major differences between the two types of polymers..

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  • 0:01 What is a Polymer?
  • 0:50 Types of Polymers
  • 2:05 What Polymers Occur Naturally?
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Timeline
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Speed Speed

Natural Polymers Synthetic Polymers
Found naturally in the environment Created in a lab or factory by humans
Occur naturally, in plants and animals Do not occur naturally
Created from biological processes Created from chemical processes
Most are easily biodegradable Most are not biodegradable

Types of Polymers

Natural polymers can be divided into two types based on their polymerization process - addition and condensation polymerization. Aspects of addition polymerization include:

  • Monomers are simply linked together.
  • It happens with unsaturated molecules, typically carbon molecules with double bonds.
  • A continuous chain is formed, so it is also called chain growth polymorphism.
  • No by-products are formed during this process.
  • Addition polymerization is used often by the chemical industry to create synthetic polymers.

In contrast, aspects of condensation polymerization include:

  • Monomers join together through condensation reaction.
  • By-products are formed as some molecules are lost in the process.
  • Water often is the by-product, which will condense again if conditions are right.
  • Monomers with either two similar or different functional groups, distinct groups of atoms within a molecule, are needed for the process to work.
  • All naturally occurring polymers are formed by condensation reactions.

Examples of Polymers

Most of the structures of living things are made of natural polymers. There are three main types of structures: polynucleotides, polyamides, and polysaccharides.

Polynucleotides

Polynucleotides are chains of nucleotides, the basic building block of nucleic acids. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a very important polynucleotide since life would not exist without it. The monomers that make DNA are called nucleotides. They are linked by a condensation reaction so that many nucleotides are joined in a long chain. DNA is found in all living things, whether plant, animal, or human. DNA stores the genetic makeup of life, determining a person's physical traits as well as those of any living thing.


Part of a DNA strand, a polynucleotide.

color image of DNA strand


Another polynucleotide is ribonucleic acid or RNA. RNA is a linear chain of nucleotides. RNA is also found in all living things and plays an important part in coding and decoding the genetics in DNA. Like DNA, RNA is formed from a condensation reaction.


A model of an RNA strand, a linear polynucleotide.

color model of an RNA strand


Polyamides

Polyamides are chains of proteins. One example is keratin, which is found in humans in hair and nails. Wool and silk are also examples of natural polyamides, which are used to create textiles such as clothing.


Fingernails are made of keratin, a polyamide made of a chain of amino acids.

color photo of a hand


Cotton is a polyamide found in nature that is used to make textiles.

color photo of a cotton plant


Proteins are made from amino acid monomers and are condensation polymers. One amino acid's NH2 functional group reacts with the COOH functional group of another amino acid, forming a peptide bond -CO-NH-. The peptide bond is also called an amide bond, which is why proteins are called polyamides.


Diagram showing how two amino acids combine to form a peptide bond.

color diagram showing how a peptide bond is formed


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Frequently Asked Questions

What do natural polymers mean?

Polymers are chains of repeated molecules linked together. Natural polymers are those that occur naturally and are found in living things such as plants and animals.

What are examples of natural polymers?

Natural polymers come in many forms. DNA and RNA are polymers, as are cotton and silk. Keratin is a polymer that hair and fingernails are made out of. Many foods have polymers in them that are polysaccharides; chains of sugars such as glucose and cellulose found in grains, fruits, and vegetables.

What are natural polymers made of?

There are three main types of structures found in natural polymers. One is made of proteins, one is made of sugars, and the third is made of nucleotides.

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